The Horse Race and Its Tumultuous Relationship With Betting

The horse race is one of the oldest of all sports. It has developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle involving huge fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but the essential feature remains unchanged. At the very heart of it, as at its very beginnings, a horse race is an intense competition between human beings and horses over money. The sport has evolved into a huge public-entertainment business and a worldwide industry. It also has a tumultuous, often violent, relationship with betting.

At the start of a horse race, bettors scrutinize the horses in the walking ring. If a horse’s coat looks bright and rippling with just the right amount of sweat, the beast is believed to be ready to run. If not, it is feared the animal might be frightened or angry. As dash racing (one heat) became the rule, a few yards in a race gained tremendous importance. And so the skill and judgment of the jockey, a human in the saddle on top of a 5,000-pound creature, became increasingly crucial to the success of the horse.

When humans perch on the backs of animals and compel them with whips to sprint at breakneck speed, it’s no wonder that the animals can get injured or even die in the process. In the wild, horses understand that self-preservation is the only path to a healthy and long life. But on a racetrack, where the goal is not to live but simply to win, they are pushed past their limits.

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. Wagering on the results of races is the sole reason that the sport has survived as a major professional sport.

Despite the widespread use of drugs, a few elite Thoroughbreds have managed to rise above the pack. These are the best-bred, fastest animals in the world and are the focus of enormous wagering. As a result, horse races have become the most popular sport in the world.

The term horse race is also used, and has been for centuries, to describe any close form of competition. In the political arena, critics say that news outlets too often frame elections as a horse race, focusing on attacks and mudslinging rather than on policy debates.

Some experts say that journalists can improve their coverage of elections by taking steps to reduce the amount of horse-race journalism they engage in. But others argue that criticism of horse-race journalism is unfair because, in the United States, freedoms of speech and the press give news organizations broad leeway to cover races as they see fit. And, they point out, if people don’t like how an election is being covered, they can find other sources of information. For example, they can look for a different newspaper or TV station. Or, they can read a book about elections that doesn’t focus on the horse-race dynamic.