The Human Side of a Horse Race

A horse race is a contest of speed among horses ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies and driven by drivers. The great horse races evoke feelings of wonder and awe in the audience, whether in Millionaires Row at a major track or from the crowded infield where fans mix, mingle and cheer. But there is more to an exceptional horse race than speed; it is a test of endurance and stamina, as well. A great horse race reaches its climax not at the finish line but at the point when a race has stretched a moment beyond breaking point. The most spectacular examples of this are Secretariat’s 31-length demolition job in the 1973 Belmont Stakes and Arkle’s utterly dominating six-length victory in the 1965 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

In the early days of organized horse racing, six-year-olds with 168 pounds on their backs would run 4-mile heats. A horse had to win two of these to be adjudged the winner. Later, dash racing—a single race of one mile—was adopted in the United States. The resulting standardized weights and shorter distances made for faster races. But even these changes did not make it possible to determine a winner based solely on speed alone. A horse’s overall performance and a jockey’s skill in coaxing an advantage from his mount became the mark of excellence.

The great racehorses of the past, such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew, won their races through a combination of innate ability, determination and talent on the part of the horse and its trainer. The great thoroughbreds were trained in a disciplined manner and were fed high-quality food and water to build their muscle mass. They were also carefully conditioned for each race by being exposed to the track and to the other runners in the field before their race day. In addition, they were tended by skilled trainers who understood that each horse’s body and mind were different and would react to each event in its own way.

Few people outside of the horse racing industry understand this aspect of the sport. People are more likely to focus on the odds of winning or losing than to think about the human beings behind each animal. And the fact is that, when news organizations feature a lot of horse race reporting—which is often done to attract attention and increase readership for stories with low probabilities of success—they risk promoting public cynicism of politics and the democratic process, as multiple studies have shown.

As election day approaches, it may be time to reconsider this kind of strategic journalism. The American people can’t afford to have our democracy become a horse race where the stakes are a few extra votes in key swing states. Those polls are not only costly, but they may also be counterproductive to democratic legitimacy. For these reasons, many scholars who study elections and news coverage have criticized the practice of horse race reporting.