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The Rules of the Horse Race

horse race

Some people think horse racing is inhumane, corrupted by doping and overbreeding, and that it’s time to stop funding this “sport of kings.” Others believe that horse races remain a fundamentally sound form of human recreation, and that the sport, which developed from a primitive contest of speed and stamina into an international spectacle involving large fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, has stood the test of time.

A few days ago, in a race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, eleven horses lined up to run into the pinkish light of an early evening. War of Will, that year’s Preakness champion, took the lead as they rounded the clubhouse turn, with Mongolian Groom and McKinzie close behind. Then, in the final furlong, Vino Rosso, a chestnut colt with huge strides and hypnotic smoothness, surged past the leaders. The crowd, which seemed to be mostly working class men, grew deafeningly loud. The chorus of oaths and imprecations swelled with the rhythm of the race.

There are many kinds of horse races, but the defining feature of a Thoroughbred race is the amount of weight that a competing horse must carry. The weights are set either centrally where racing is so controlled or by individual tracks, with the goal of establishing what’s called racing form and giving all horses an equal chance of winning.

The weights assigned to different horses can be affected by a number of factors, including their age, position in the starting gate, sex (females have lower weights than males), and jockey. Some of the most prestigious races, which offer the biggest purses, are handicap races.

In addition to the normal weights and allowances, some races have additional stipulations to encourage particular types of horses, or to ensure that all horses compete at an equally high level. For example, a two-year-old racer must carry less weight than one that is three years old, and fillies are often given sex allowances so they can compete at the same weight as males.

Despite all of these rules and regulations, some horses still have an unfair advantage over the rest by virtue of the medications they take in order to prepare for the race. Powerful painkillers designed for humans bleed over into race preparation, as do antipsychotics, antiepilepsy drugs, and growth hormones. Racing officials can’t keep up with the new medications, and they have weak penalties for breaking any rule.

So the story published this week by The Times and PETA describing what it alleges is happening at world-class thoroughbred facilities was shocking for anyone who has seen a horse race. But the fact that the industry’s legions of apologists were suspicious of where the video came from, or that The Times hitched its wagon to PETA, shouldn’t be confused with hostility toward the activist organization. Virtually no one outside of racing cares how PETA got the video—just as virtually no one beyond the world of horse racing cares how they get any undercover footage of alleged abuse.