Horse races are a sport whose earliest roots stretch back centuries. It is an intensely human activity in which the horses’ bodies, and often their minds, are put to the test as they run through the crowded swarms of humans in the grandstand and in the betting pit. It is a game in which a great race can elevate a horse from simple greatness to immortality. But the sport is also one that can be very hard on horses and its practitioners. Many of its athletes will die young from the exorbitant physical stress of racing and training, while others are pushed to their limits and beyond, bled to death or sent for slaughter because of injuries. The sport has a long history of scandals involving drugs and safety.
In the beginning, racing was private and exclusive. The field of runners was determined by a combination of factors, including age, sex, birthplace, and previous performance. Then, in the mid-18th century, demand for more public racing led to the development of open events. The first races were closed events, in which only the horses’ owners could participate, and they were restricted to a single township or county. Eventually the open system expanded, and rules were established on how many horses could be entered in each event. The sport’s greatest era was in the second half of the 19th century, when open races, with their large purses and celebrity jockeys, became enormously popular.
The best Flat races in the world are contested over distances ranging from two miles to four and a half miles (6.4 km). Shorter races are known as sprints, while longer races are called routes in the United States or staying races in Europe. The best horses can accelerate quickly, but are primarily tested for stamina.
Whether it is a clash of generations like that of Grundy and Bustino in the 1964 Rooster Cocker Handicap, or a battle for supremacy between two top three-year-olds like Arkle in 1963’s Metropolitan, Brooklyn, and Suburban handicaps, these races are the most important of the year. But the true greatness of a race requires more than a great horse and a famous venue.
To be a true great, a horse must be able to run fast in the face of enormous pressure and a crowd that would turn its teeth at any other animal. This is a sport where horses are drugged and whipped, and pushed past their natural limits. A great many of them, according to the activist group Horseracing Wrongs, will bleed from their lungs as they run, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. To help them recover from the pain and bleeding, they are given a cocktail of legal and illegal substances that mask injuries and enhance their performance. Those that survive the exorbitant physical stress of racing will spend most of their lives in solitary confinement, as they are bred for a few minutes of glory in an event that can turn them into legend.