June 13, 2024

The horse race — a sport of long, excruciating sprints over obstacles that can include church steeples, fallen trees, and other natural obstructions – is not for the faint of heart. Horses are trained to run at such breakneck speeds that they often sustain injuries, suffer gruesome breakdowns, and die in the middle of races, sometimes in full view of the crowd that had just cheered them on. Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred racing lies a darker world of doping, cruelty, and slaughter.

As we walked the backstretch at Santa Anita, it was hard to believe that horses actually liked it there. The track was a deep, sloppy dirt affair that spit out clumps of debris every time the pack of eleven runners charged by. And though horses love to gallop, they are prey animals, and being in the middle of a pack is a miserable experience.

A few feet in front of the herd, a dark-colored colt named McKinzie took the lead, followed by Mongolian Groom and a small-framed chestnut called Vino Rosso. War of Will, the previous year’s Preakness champion, was close up on their heels.

It was a good day for trainers and owners, too. The Breeders’ Cup was the highlight of the calendar, and many horses had been pointed for the race. Even so, the best-laid plans are often foiled when a race does not fill or when an extra race is added at the last minute.

To ensure that wagering on the sport remains viable, rules have been created to restrict the number of fast horses that can compete with one another. Classes have been established based on age, sex, and performance. Some races have been written with “class relief” provisions that allow for a certain level of horses to run against each other, while maintaining an even playing field.

Many allowance races are also written with optional claiming clauses. These are a great way for trainers to get their horses matched up against horses that may be just below their class. It is a risk-reward proposition as the trainer may be taking on more weight than his or her horse is used to, but the horse has the potential to earn more money than in a regular race.

There are also races that are not open to all entrants, such as claiming races, which attract older, salty veterans of the sport looking for a big win. Other restrictions include race distances, sex of the race, and whether or not a jockey has been licensed. These restrictions are meant to create a level playing field and prevent an overabundance of the same horses competing with each other for the largest purses. This is a necessary step to help maintain the integrity of the sport, and it is a constant work in progress. A growing awareness of the dark side of horse racing has fuelled these improvements, and the industry is in the midst of a major transition that should lead to greater safety and better competition for the purses.