The news came on like a thunderclap: Two top thoroughbred horse trainers have been accused of cruelty to horses they train. The allegations come at the elite level of horse racing, and they expose an ugly reality behind the romanticized facade of the sport. Behind the scenes, racehorses are subjected to a multibillion-dollar industry rife with drug abuse, injuries, and breakdowns that often end in death and slaughter.
These horses—weighing more than 1,000 pounds and supported by ankles the size of a human’s—are forced to run at speeds that can cause serious injuries, blood loss, and even shocks to the lungs. They are whipped and rushed around tracks made of hard-packed dirt, enduring the exorbitant physical stress that is the foundation of the sport. Despite their power and beauty, many horses do not survive the sport’s brutal training regime.
Spectators sip mint juleps, wear designer outfits, and show off their best hats in a sport that has become synonymous with wealth, elegance, and social status. But the reality is that these races aren’t just a diversion for wealthy people; they’re also about competition, status, and power, and they often involve the use of force or violence. Moreover, horse racing and gambling form part of a set of practices that Johan Huizinga called “sacred play”—a form of entertainment that also includes warfare.
In the medieval period, wealthy nobles and aristocrats used to showcase their horses’ speed by racing them over short distances of a quarter, half, or a mile. Professional riders—known as jockeys—were employed to ride and steer the horses. They were usually young boys with extensive knowledge of horses and their care. The first recorded racing occurred in 1440, and the sport soon spread throughout Europe and beyond.
Today, horse races are held at more than 2,300 tracks in 61 countries and territories. They attract more than 6 million spectators and generate an estimated $26 billion in betting handle each year. The most prestigious races are the Triple Crown, the Irish Derby, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
During the American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers formed a horse race team to compete against Confederate teams in the area. The team won four of the six races in the series, including one of the most famous horse races ever, the Battle of Appomattox Court House. The victory boosted the morale of Union troops and helped them to win the war.
While some scholars have criticized the way in which the media has covered horse races, others point to research showing that horse race reporting has had real consequences for political candidates. In fact, focusing on the race can lead journalists to shortchange third-party candidates, who might receive less attention than Republican and Democratic ones. In addition, researchers have found that some forms of horse race reporting can have psychological effects on the viewers. For example, some studies have shown that watching a horse race can cause the viewer to change his or her vote in an election.