Whether or not horse racing is your cup of tea, it’s hard to ignore the sport’s impact on American culture. Behind the romanticized facade of the Thoroughbred race is a world of drug abuse, injuries, and even death. During a horse race, horses are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds that can cause them to suffer hemorrhage from their lungs. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are running for their lives.
The sport’s rise was fueled by the prestige and money associated with winning a race. As the sport developed, breeders began breeding leaner, faster equines, which became known as Thoroughbreds. After British soldiers returning from desert battle fronts told of their opponents’ amazing horses speeding through the sand, Middle Eastern sires were brought to England and the foundation for modern racing was laid. These leaner, faster equines attracted gawkers and vastly increased interest in the sport. New oval tracks that allowed spectators a better view of the action further enhanced its appeal.
By the mid-18th century, the demand for public racing had resulted in open races that allowed all eligible runners to compete for a prize. Rules were established to determine the eligibility of each horse based on age, sex, and previous race results. Some of the earliest races were match races, where two or three owners provided each horse for the contest, and a simple wager was placed on the outcome. This system was eventually replaced by a more formalized betting structure whereby bettors paid for the right to place a bet on a specific horse. These bets were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be called keepers of the match books.
Races were also structured based on the amount of weight a horse was required to carry. This was determined by a fixed scale that considered a horse’s weight, gender, age, and distance of the race. Races that were based on a certain percentage of the total weight a horse was required to carry were called allowance races, while races that offered the largest purses were called handicap races.
In the final stretch, War of Will hugged the inside rail while Mongolian Groom and McKinzie surged ahead. The crowd screamed and cheered. The jockeys whipped the horses, and as the pack made the far turn, the sound of their hooves pounding into the dirt grew louder. As the horses came into full stride for the finish line, the winner crossed with a lead of over six lengths. Mary is a freelance writer for Sports&Hobbies who has contributed articles on horse racing and other popular topics. She has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and enjoys researching and writing in her spare time. When not exploring the outdoors, she enjoys learning about history and politics.