One of the world’s most popular spectator sports, a horse race is an enthralling drama of skill and courage. Behind the romanticized facade of the sport, however, is a gruesome reality: horses are forced to run at such a furious pace that they often break down or sustain serious injuries. Moreover, the industry depends heavily on drugs and the use of whips (although these are sometimes illegally abused) to force animals that have reached their peak performance to continue running in hopes that they will eventually regain their form.
While the sport has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity, there were some dark times for the industry, including an era when Oliver Cromwell outlawed the sport along with gambling, wrestling and cockfighting (though he did keep a stud to use on his wife’s mares). Since the establishment of the Triple Crown series in the United States – the Belmont Stakes, Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby – in 1867, horse racing has become an international phenomenon. Today, scores of countries host horse races and a worldwide audience tunes in to witness the high-speed, ruthless combat between the jockey and his mount.
Handicap: A system by which the weights that a horse must carry during a race are adjusted relative to its age and past performances. A two-year-old, for example, will compete with slightly lighter weights than a three-year-old because it is immature and less well established in its career. There are also sex allowances for fillies, enabling them to compete with less weight than male horses of the same age.
Blinkers: A pair of small plastic attachments worn on the horse’s forehead and face that diminish distraction by preventing the horse from looking around or to its sides too much during a race. The device has proven to be a useful training aid in helping the horse to focus on the finish line and concentrate on its job during a race.
Cup: A trophy awarded to the winner of a race or series of races. Traditionally, cup races were run in dirt but have been moved to turf courses over the last few decades.
Purse: The total monetary amount paid after a race to the owners of the horses that finish in the top four or five positions. It is common for purses to be split into tiers.
Racehorse: A Thoroughbred horse that is trained to compete in a variety of races. Its basic training involves being broke in order to accept a rider and obey basic commands, such as moving forward and turning left. In more advanced training, a racehorse is taught to jump hurdles and to run on the lead.
Trip: The course taken by a horse and its rider during a race. A “good trip” indicates that the horse ran without significant trouble; a bad trip would involve difficulties such as racing wide or being boxed in by other horses.
Track: A circular dirt or turf course on which horse races are held. A “hard” track means that it is not resiliant enough and therefore may cause injury to a horse’s feet. A “soft” track is one that is resiliant enough and allows the horse to grip with its hooves.