What Is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest between horses that takes place on a fixed-length course. The winners are determined by whichever horse crosses the finish line first. A number of different horse races are run throughout the world. The most common types of horse racing are flat-course and turf-track races, steeplechases, and harness racing.

A lot of people love betting on horse races, but the sport is also filled with crooks and bad behavior. The shady characters in the racing industry often drug horses and mistreat them, and there are some serious issues with the safety of the animals themselves.

The earliest races were match races between two or more horses, and bettors placed simple wagers. An owner who withdrew would forfeit part or all of the purse. These agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, called keeper of the match books. One such keeper, at Newmarket in England, published An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729).

Later, organized horse racing developed in the colonies. In America, colonists followed the British system by laying out tracks, offering a prize, and establishing betting pools. This was the genesis of pari-mutuel betting, in which bettors share the winnings of the top three finishers (win, place, and show).

In a typical race, dozens of horses are constrained to sprint in close quarters. The humans perched atop their backs compel them to this breakneck speed by using whips. In nature, horses know that self-preservation is their best bet, but in the artificial herds of the racetrack, they must endure pain, injury, and sometimes death to maintain their position at the front of the pack.

A horse’s ability to run depends on its age and physical condition. It reaches peak fitness at about age five, but escalating breeding fees, stakes purses, and sale prices have led to more and more races being held with horses younger than that. A jockey’s skill, judgment, and ability to coax a few extra yards of speed out of his mount are the key factors in success at the track.

Some horses are more prone to injury than others. Some common injuries include bucked shins and splints, lameness in the hindquarters, and sores on the feet. Other, more serious injuries can occur in the case of a catastrophic breakdown or an accident. One example is the 2007 Triple Crown winner, Eighth Wonder, who suffered a broken leg while running in the Belmont Stakes.