Horse racing is an ancient sport with a long and diverse history, attracting millions of fans worldwide. It is a multi-billion dollar industry with events like the Kentucky Derby drawing in large crowds and generating substantial revenues. However, behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. The sport is also rife with corruption and money-laundering, contributing to the deterioration of horses’ health and welfare, while the profit motive drives trainers and owners to push them beyond their limits. The result is a tumultuous and unpredictable ride for the horses and their riders, which is often tragic and deadly.
Before a race begins, the owner of each participating horse puts up a sum of money, which is known as the purse. This money is then awarded to the winner of the race, with other prizes distributed to those who finish in the top three positions or more. The owner of a winning horse is entitled to 100% of the purse, while the other placed horses will receive a share. The cost of entering a race is typically far more than the actual prize money, meaning most horses are entered in races with no guarantee that they will win.
The horses are trained to run at very high speeds, putting them under immense physical stress. Many horses, particularly those who are bred to be fast and win major races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, will bleed from their lungs during exercise, a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. This is caused by the horse’s lungs being pushed past their physical limits, causing them to bleed into the pulmonary alveoli and cause hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the blood). The horse can then become exhausted and collapse.
While there are some exceptions, the vast majority of horse races are decided by photo finishes. In these cases, the stewards will study a photograph of the finish and decide which horse crossed the line first. In the event that the stewards cannot determine a clear winner, the race is declared a dead heat.
Despite being one of the most popular spectator sports, horse racing has struggled to maintain its popularity since World War II. Its leaders failed to embrace television and adapt with the rise of professional and collegiate team sports, leading to declining attendance numbers. Currently, only 1 to 2 percent of Americans list horse racing as their favorite spectator sport.
Spectators can place bets on their favorite horse for a race in advance of the day. This is typically done a year or more before the race takes place. The price of the bet will usually be higher than the odds offered on the day of the race, reflecting the fact that the horse is not guaranteed to be in the race. This is why the industry relies on donations from industry folks and gamblers. Donations are essential to the survival of the industry but do not cancel out participation in its ongoing, often deadly exploitation of younger running horses. The lives of Eight Belles, Medina Spirit and thousands of other horses have been stolen by this for-profit business, but they do not have to be.