What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest between horses that takes place over a set distance and whose winner is determined by the first one to cross the finish line. Different national horse racing organizations have a variety of rules that dictate how a horse race should be run. However, the majority of horse races follow a similar pattern. In the case of a dead heat, a photograph of the finish is studied by stewards to determine which horse crossed the line first. In many cases, the winning horse is awarded a higher prize amount than the other competitors in the race.

The origin of horse racing can be traced back to ancient times, and archeological evidence suggests that the sport existed in several civilizations. It has since evolved into a global public entertainment industry with massive profits and complex electronic monitoring equipment, but the basic concept of horse racing has remained unchanged.

Despite the romanticized image of horse racing, the sport is plagued by dangerous drug abuse and animal cruelty. Behind the façade of elegant stables and mint juleps, horses are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips or illegal electric shock devices—at speeds that frequently result in serious injuries and even gruesome breakdowns.

In the United States, organized horse racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1664. The colony’s commander laid out a two-mile course and offered a silver cup to the winner of each race. In contrast to the British system, where speed was paramount, the American system emphasized stamina. Large, mature horses were preferred and it was not uncommon to see them compete through age 10. The most famous of these races that feature older horses is the Palio di Siena in Italy where the winners represent one of seventeen Contrade or city wards in a magnificent pageant.

A common form of horse race is a handicap race, in which the horses competing have weights assigned to them based on their age, sex, and distance. In general, younger horses carry less weight than their elders, and a filly carries less weight than a male. Other factors that can influence the outcome of a race include a track’s difficulty, its distance and surface, and its layout.

When journalists covering an election focus on describing the competitive race between candidates—what is known as horse race coverage—they harm voters, the news media and themselves, research shows. The results are clear: when media coverage of an election focuses on who is ahead and behind, policy issues lose importance. A growing body of research has shown that this type of coverage is harmful to democracy.