The Dark Side of Horse Racing

horse race

In the world of horse racing, as spectators show off their fancy clothes and sip mint juleps in the stands, horses are running for their lives. They’re pushed to sprint–often under the threat of whips that can lash them and even cause traumatic hemorrhaging from the lungs. They’re injected with cocktails of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries, enhance performance, and help them endure the grueling demands of the sport. Behind the glamorous façade of Thoroughbred horse racing lies a darker reality of gruesome breakdowns, drug abuse, and slaughter.

The first horse races were match contests between two, and later three, horses. An owner would provide the purse, or prize money, and bettors placed wagers on the horses’ chances of winning. When a horse withdrew, it commonly forfeited half or the whole purse. Agreements about wagers were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match books.

When Oliver Cromwell banned horse racing along with gambling, wrestling and many other things he considered sinful, Charles II revived it. He also modernized the sport and established a system for drafting rules and determining weights to be carried by individual horses based on their age, gender and past performances. He also began to impose stakes, or prize money, on the winners.

Today, the industry has adapted to changing technological advances. Thermal imaging cameras can detect overheating post-race, MRI scanners and X-rays allow veterinarians to diagnose a wide range of conditions before they worsen, and 3D printing is used to produce casts, splints and prosthetics for injured or ailing horses.

As the result of the technology revolution and growing awareness about the dark side of the industry, horse races are improving faster than they ever have before. But, despite these improvements, horse racing is losing fans and revenue. In the US, the sport is facing a decline in attendance, race days and entries, while in Europe, interest in horse racing has dropped significantly since 2000.

Before the start of a horse race, the stewards and patrol judges examine each horse for carrying the correct amount of weight and for any rule infractions claimed by jockeys. Saliva and urine samples are taken from the horses to test for the presence of prohibited substances. Winning horses may be disqualified if the judge finds they violated the rules.

Before the inauguration of this year’s Italian Classic, Siena’s central square, the Piazza del Campo, was transformed beyond recognition. A gritty mixture of clay and earth was packed onto the golden cobbles to create a level, compact track, while bleachers were assembled for thousands of fans and barriers erected to mark the boundaries of the circuit. As a result, the horse’s coats looked dull and unripe. At the starting gate, Mongolian Groom balked. Bettors like to look at a horse’s coat in the walking ring and, if it’s bright, rippling with muscled excitement and just a bit sweaty, the animal is believed to be ready to run.

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