A horse race is a competition in which horses are raced on the ground and over hurdles (if present). The first horse to cross the finish line is declared the winner. The earliest known records of horse racing date back to the Greek Olympic Games in 700 to 40 B.C. The sport quickly spread throughout Europe and Asia and eventually became an integral part of the modern world.
One of the major types of horse races is a handicap race in which horses compete against each other but have different weights to carry for fairness. A horse’s handicap is determined by its age, sex, birthplace, and previous performance in races. The most prestigious races, known as “conditions” races, feature the largest purses. Other factors that can influence a horse’s performance include its position relative to the inside barrier, the track surface, and the jockey.
Despite ongoing improvements in the safety of running horses, horse racing remains a dangerous endeavor for animals. Horses are regularly injured and killed, most frequently from the exorbitant physical stress of competing in a horse race. Injuries and breakdowns in training are also common, as is the death of a young racehorse from an uncontrollable heart attack. These tragedies have sparked calls for a full reckoning of racing’s ethics and integrity.
The emergence of the specialized breeds of Thoroughbred horses in the mid-nineteenth century led to increased interest in public racing. As demand grew, rules were established for eligibility of horses and jockeys. Rules governing racing were developed on the basis of the horse’s age, sex, birthplace, previous performance in races, and its owner or trainer. Prize money was awarded to the first, second, and third place horses. During this period, the first three-race series to be called the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes—was introduced.
As the popularity of racing grew, it became increasingly common for wealthy individuals to invest their fortunes in breeding and wagering on horses. This prompted the creation of more and more races that offered greater prize money. Moreover, the increased demand for betting helped to establish the modern game of horse racing.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), racing based on gambling reached its peak in France and other parts of Europe. The first recorded horse race was a wager between two noblemen in 1651, and by the 1750s standardized races were being run.
While the earliest records of horse races are not clear, it is believed that early racing in Greece and Rome was a combination of four-hitched chariots and mounted bareback races. In the United States, a standardized type of flat race was established in 1731 when six-year-old horses were admitted to King’s Plates and required to carry 168 pounds over four-mile heats. This type of racing continued until the 1860s. By then other types of racing had begun to take shape, including races for five- and four-year-olds, and a system in which horses were rated on their ability rather than their record at a given age.