A horse race is a contest of speed between horses that are either ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies. Unlike other major sports leagues, which have one set of rules and penalties, the dozens of states that host horse racing have their own sets of rules for everything from the use of whips to the types of medications that can be given to horses.
Each horse is assigned an official handicap rating based on its previous performance and the number of races it has run. The theory is that this system will allow all horses to compete on a fairly equal basis. A horse with a higher handicap rating will have to carry more weight than a horse with a lower handicap rating.
The sport has three groups of horsemen and horsewomen: the crooks, the dupes, and the honorable souls who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but don’t give their all to fix it. The first category are the sleazy crooks who drug and otherwise cheat their way to victory. They’re a small, feral minority but still large enough to stain the integrity of the sport for everyone else. The second category are the dupes who labor under the illusion that the sport is broadly fair and honest. They’re not as numerous as the crooks but they’re too many for the industry to thrive.
Most horsemen and horsewomen, however, fall into the third category. These are the decent people who work hard but not enough to make a real difference in the sport’s ethics. They’re a good-sized group, but they are the last best hope for reform because if they won’t do their part to clean up the industry, no one will.
There’s no doubt that the sport has a long list of problems: drugs, injuries, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. But there’s also no denying that it attracts millions of fans who cheer for their favorite horses while drinking mint julips in the grandstand. The power, beauty and excitement of the horses are undeniable draws, but there’s no doubt that the money is what really pulls in the crowds.
When bettors place a bet on a specific horse, they are making a wager that the horse will win the race. The monetary amount won by the winning bettors is known as the “poker chip.” A horse that wins the race will have its poker chip placed on its shoulder. A horse that is ‘on the rails’ or ‘against the rails’ means it is running close to or on the side of the white plastic rails that define the track. This helps the horse stay in a straight line when it is coming to a close finish. This is sometimes called ‘taking the lead’. Similarly, a horse that is ‘in the pack’ or ‘behind the pack’ indicates it is in a looser pack of runners and may not be as close to the finish line.