A horse race is a competition in which a horse and jockey attempt to finish first by crossing a finish line before the other competitors. Horse racing is an extremely popular spectator sport with a long tradition in most of the world’s cultures. It has a glamorous image, with wealthy spectators wearing fancy outfits and sipping mint juleps. But behind the facade, the industry is a shadowy world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The industry is facing a major crisis as new would-be fans are turned off by animal cruelty, and is losing money as people turn to other forms of gambling and entertainment.
When horses were first domesticated in the 12th century, they were bred to run, and raced with each other for fun and profit. The sport spread to Europe when knights returning from the Crusades brought swift Arab horses to England to be bred with English mares. The nobility would wager privately on match races between the fastest horses. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the sport was further refined by a series of royal decrees that required horses to have certificates of age, established a horse club, and imposed weight penalties or allowances for different types of races, such as fillies’ carrying lighter weight than males.
In the early days of organized racing, it was a winner-take-all system where the horse that finished first received all of the purse money. But as fields of horses became more common, second and third prizes came to be offered. The modern horse race is a multimillion-dollar enterprise with many races offering purses of millions of dollars.
The first step towards a more humane horse racing industry was taken in 2020 when Congress passed a law requiring the application of rigorous safety standards throughout the nation. Since then, the horse industry has been improving and is starting to see real results. The industry must now address whether it is willing to fully implement these standards, which will ensure that horses are treated with respect and have a chance at a happy and healthy life after racing.
An industry that requires horses to run as fast as possible over short distances is inherently cruel to the animals, which are forced to sprint—often while being whipped and dragged on electric shock devices—for the amusement of wealthy spectators. If the industry wants to survive, it must adapt to a society, culture, and possibly even a justice system that is increasingly recognizing animals’ right to a full life. If the horse industry does not do so, it is likely to disappear along with Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, and thousands of other abused and neglected racehorses who never even made it to the track.