What Is Horse Racing?

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports. Over the centuries it developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a vast industry that draws huge crowds and involves staggering sums of money. Today it requires large fields of runners, complex electronic monitoring equipment, and sophisticated betting systems, but its essential concept remains the same: The winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first.

The sport of horse racing is governed by a variety of state, provincial, and national regulations. In many countries the sport is controlled by the Jockey Club, which has the power to set long-term policy. In the United States racing is regulated by state-licensed racing commissions and the federal Horseracing Integrity Act of 2000.

In North America, races are graded, meaning that the higher the level of a race, the greater its importance. Generally, the most important races are Grade I, Grade II, and Grade III. Typically, only the top horses are eligible to compete in Grade I races. Moreover, the horses competing in these races must be registered and have met certain minimum requirements, such as a minimum number of starts and earnings.

Quarter horse races differ from Thoroughbred races in several ways, most notably the timing of the start of the race. The clock in a Quarter Horse race begins as soon as the starter pushes the button to open the gate, whereas a Thoroughbred race must complete a specified distance known as the run-up distance before the start of the clock.

The physical demands of racing are extremely taxing on the horses. Their delicate ankles are particularly vulnerable to injury, and the weight of a jockey on their back can easily exceed twelve hundred pounds. To minimize the risk of injury, trainers and veterinarians prescribe and administer a wide variety of medications to help the horses endure the pain and discomfort of hard running.

Most of these drugs are legal, but critics such as PETA contend that they have no place in a sport that claims to value animal welfare. Despite the efforts of the veterinary profession and the racing industry, some horses are so injured that they must be put down. One such horse, Eight Belles, was euthanized after breaking her front ankles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

Racing insiders tend to dislike PETA and other activist groups that fight for reform, but they should not confuse hostility to the activists with dismissal of their work. As long as the horses are healthy and fairly treated, the majority of horsemen and horsewomen can be expected to continue their support of the sport. It is the cheaters and abusers, however, who must be eliminated if horse racing is to survive.