How Does a Horse Race Work?

horse race

The eleven horses lined up in the starting gate, all looking a little nervous. The race, the Palio di Siena in Italy, is a glorious spectacle. Held twice a year, it pits seventeen Contrade, or city wards, against each other in a parade of horse-mounted pageantry and running.

At the front of the pack that day was War of Will, last year’s Preakness champion. He was followed by Mongolian Groom and McKinzie, a small-framed bay with the Look of Eagles. Those three would be the ones to beat, but at the moment none of them knew it.

Horse racing is an incredibly violent sport, and the horses suffer a great deal. They’re drugged, whipped, trained and raced too young, pushed to their limits and beyond, though they’re social animals who spend most of their work lives in solitary confinement in a stall. A great many—PETA estimates ten thousand American thoroughbreds each year—will ultimately be killed. Some are used for breeding, others will be sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico. The rest, if they’re lucky, will be adopted by local nonprofit rescues who raise money and network and fundraise to help them reclaim their lives.

A race begins with horses paraded around the paddock (an area at the track where the jockeys, or riders, saddle their mounts) for inspection by stewards and to be weighed. Once the weighing is done, jockeys get on their mounts and lead them into the starting gate for the race.

During the earliest races in England, match contests between two horses were standard, but pressure from the public produced events with larger fields of runners. As dash, or one-heat, racing became the norm, a rider’s skill and judgment gained in importance. Often the difference between victory and defeat was a matter of a few yards, which made the ability to coax an advantage from his mount crucial.

As a result of these changes, modern racing has become a very complex affair. Besides the basic racing surface, it involves many types of medications. The drugs are given to reduce the likelihood of injury, to boost performance, and to improve endurance. They include painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and powerful steroids. Blood doping is common, and a variety of other prohibited substances have been found in the urine of racehorses. These days, all racehorses receive Lasix, a diuretic noted on the racing form with a boldface “L.” It’s meant to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running causes in some horses. It has another side effect, however: it causes the horses to dump epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds worth. This is not good for them or their trainers. The practice also has serious environmental implications. Horse urine is a major source of acid rain in the United States, which can cause respiratory problems and other health hazards for both humans and wildlife.