A horse race is a competition for speed among horses that are either ridden or pull sulkies (two-wheeled vehicles for human drivers). The sport has been impacted by a series of technological advances in recent years, but it continues to retain the vast majority of its rules and traditions. Its most notable developments have been in the realm of safety, with horses and jockeys now subject to a host of new technologies on and off the track that can detect and treat problems before they escalate into serious injury or death.
In addition to the many new safety measures, the technology of equine physiology is advancing rapidly. For instance, thermal imaging cameras can detect a horse that is overheating post-race and provide the information needed to prevent such an incident in the future. MRI scanners, X-rays, and endoscopes can diagnose the health of horses at a much deeper level than ever before. Meanwhile, 3D printing is enabling the rapid production of casts and splints for injured horses.
A key feature of the modern horse race is the handicap race, in which the weights that a competing horse must carry are adjusted on the basis of its age, sex, and past performance. The goal of such a system is to produce a more equitable outcome and not simply reward the best performing horses.
The earliest races were match races between two or three horses, with the owners providing the purse and a simple wager against each other. Initially, the owner who withdrew from a race forfeited half of the prize money; later, the entire purse was forfeit if he or she withdrew. These agreements were recorded by disinterested parties who came to be known as keepers of the match books. One of these was John Cheny, who began publishing An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729).
The sport is highly competitive and lucrative, but its participants have competing interests. They include the horse breeders, who produce the horses for racing; the racetracks, which organize and hold the races; the fans, who bet on them; and the state governments that tax the money wagered. There are also other stakeholders such as the jockeys, who ride the horses; and the stables, which house and train them.
The success of a horse race depends on the support of all of these groups, as well as the quality of the horses and their training. The sport thrives on the rivalry between horses such as Swaps and Nashua (1955), Alydar and Easy Goer (1978), and Sunday Silence and Saturday Evening (1989). Such equine heroes have the power to capture public imagination, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) aims to promote more of these matches. It also promotes races between horses bred in different parts of the country, and in other countries, by way of international events such as the Breeders’ Cup. These events tend to draw higher television ratings than regular horse races.