A horse race is a competition between two or more horses that takes place on a flat or jump track, with rules and regulations to govern the behavior of the runners. In modern times, these rules have evolved to include a variety of electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money at stake. The basic concept of the race, however, has remained unchanged over centuries, resulting in an ancient sport with a relatively modern name: the race of the fastest horse is the winner.
The first organized horse races in America were held during the British occupation of New Amsterdam (now New York City) starting in 1664. Colonel Richard Nicolls laid out a two-mile course on the plains of Long Island, offering a silver cup for the best horse in spring and fall races. The American Thoroughbred had been bred to be fast but was not yet built for endurance, so the early emphasis was on speed. The development of a more durable breed that could go the distance led to a shift in focus after the Civil War to stamina and distance racing, with horses competing in match races with other runners over several four-mile heats.
With the onset of industrialization and increasing colonial wealth, horse racing grew into a massive public entertainment business. By the 19th century, it was one of the largest industries in the world. Today, the industry is regulated by a variety of federal and state laws. Horses are inspected to ensure that they meet minimum health requirements before they are allowed to compete in a race. A wide range of veterinary tools and technology are used to monitor the health and well-being of racehorses, including thermal imaging cameras, MRI scanners, endoscopes, and 3D printing to produce casts and splints.
Despite this, many racehorses are drugged, whipped, and pushed to their limits. Animal welfare activists estimate that ten thousand American thoroughbreds are slaughtered each year. The majority of these are euthanized at the tracks or sold for meat processing. Those that don’t make it to the slaughterhouse are often abandoned by their owners, and if they don’t die, will end up at an auction where they may be bought for a variety of purposes, such as breeding or racing.
The abuse of horses in the sport is a systemic problem that has become so pervasive that even those who love the game must acknowledge that serious reform needs to take place. Trainers and jockeys often over-medicate and over-train the horses, breaking them down and causing them to have accidents or become so worn down that they will eventually be put down or sold at auction. Random drug testing is in place, but it often fails to catch egregious violations and penalties for broken rules are weak. The majority of horsemen and women see the problems, but they are too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs or their money. This silent majority must change the culture of the sport before it is too late.