The History of the Horse Race

A horse race is a spectacular event involving hundreds of beautiful horses, some carrying hefty amounts of weight, and thousands of spectators who cheer with a mixture of excitement, desperation, and hope. The thrill of watching a powerful animal fly through the air and run to the finish line at breakneck speed is unmatched by any other sport, although it may not be very healthy for the horses themselves. The sport is a major source of revenue for many states.

In the past, horse racing was one of America’s most popular sports. Bettors poured millions of dollars into the sport each year, and the money paid to jockeys and trainers was enough to lift some people out of poverty for a week, a month or, if a long shot won a big race, even a lifetime.

The sport is extremely dangerous, however, and in the 21st century Congress decided that it was not willing to let horses die to satisfy bettors, so it passed laws requiring safety standards for the industry. A new agency, the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, was formed to implement these standards. The industry has been loth to change, but these new measures seem to be working and the number of race-day deaths has fallen significantly.

Horses are powerful animals that have been bred for centuries to be used in racing and jumping, the most arduous of all sports. The earliest writing on the care and training of horses dates from 1500 bc in Asia Minor, and there is a full description of chariot racing in Homer’s Iliad. Bareback — or mounted – races were part of the Olympic Games as early as 740 bc, and steeplechases, which involve jumping over a variety of obstacles, have been around since the 5th century bc.

From the beginning of organized racing, until the Civil War, stamina was the key to success. In the United States, six-year-olds ran in King’s Plates that were essentially endurance races, and winning was often a matter of coaxing the last few yards out of a tired horse. After the Civil War, speed became more important, and dash racing was introduced, with a single heat for each race.

In the modern era, most races are won by horses that can be rated early on. These are the horses that should be favored, and their owners should receive a certain percentage of the total pari-mutuel payoffs (the amount bet by everyone, not just those who win). A horse rated late is one that was in contention early but drops back toward the middle of the pack in the final stretch. This can be a sign of weakness, but is less drastic than stopped and may still earn the owner some money.

The judging of a horse race begins with the riders, or jockeys, weighing in and reporting to the paddock, where their mounts are saddled. An official is present to verify their identities, and they then parade the horses through a gate into the starting stalls. At this point, an electronic signal is sounded, and the race begins.