Horse races are a major sport that has evolved from primitive contests of speed or stamina between two horses to huge spectacles with large fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment. But the basic concept remains unchanged: The horse that finishes first is declared the winner. Bettors place wagers on the outcome of a race and share in the total amount of money bet minus a percentage that goes to the track management. In early times, bets were private, but betting was extended in the 19th century to a public pool known as pari-mutuel.
The sport can be grueling for the animals involved, even when they are well-bred and trained. Animal welfare activists claim that ten thousand American thoroughbreds are killed every year because of the brutal physical demands of racing and training, and that those that do survive often die later from heart attacks and broken bones. Patrick Battuello, who runs the activist group Horseracing Wrongs, says that the idea of racing as a sport is a “Big Lie.” Its athletes are drugged, whipped, and trained too young and pushed to their limits, he argues; and many, though not all, die from catastrophic events or at least suffer from injuries so severe that they cannot live on.
Traditionally, horse races were run over long distances and required both speed and stamina. The most prestigious flat races in the world, such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup, and Sydney Cup are all held over distances of at least a mile and a half. In addition to these longer races, there are also sprints for shorter distances, and a number of horse breeds have been developed to race over short distances such as Quarter Horse races, which are run at distances between 100 yards and 870 yards.
Races for older horses are also common in some countries. In the United States, races for horses four years and older are usually called Grade 1 and are considered stakes. These races are usually over a mile and a quarter or one and a half miles, and require both speed and stamina. In Europe, the best older races are the Prix de l’Arc De Triomphe and the Epsom Derby.
Although different types of horse races have a variety of rules, all horse races must start at the same time using starting gates that open horizontally across the track at the chosen point of beginning. Once the horses are released from their gates, they will race as hard as they can for the length of the course and, at the end of the race, the horse whose nose crosses the finish line first is declared the winner. Some races are also subject to a variety of other rules that affect the safety of the participants and spectators. These rules are typically enforced by an official named a Steward. This official is not seen during a race, but is responsible for ensuring that all the rules of the race are followed and that no fouls occur.