What Is a Horse Race?

A horse race is any kind of close contest or competition involving horses, either ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies and their drivers. The term is often used in the context of politics, particularly when discussing the relative strengths of frontrunners and underdogs. In fact, political scholars have studied the way news organizations imply that elections are a horse race, framing them as competitive games with clear winners and losers. With mudslinging, name calling, and attack ads all swirling around us, it’s easy to lose sight of the issues at stake in a political campaign.

The first horse race organized in North America took place at New Amsterdam in 1664. In the beginning, it was a standardized race for six-year-olds carrying 168 pounds at four-mile heats, and a horse had to win two of them to be declared the winner. Five- and four-year-olds were admitted to the King’s Plates in 1751, and the races shortened to two miles. Heat racing continued until the Civil War.

During the early part of a race, it is not uncommon for a horse to balk at the starting gate, or refuse to start at all. This can be a sign that the animal is frightened, angry, or confused. The horse’s rider may then try to persuade the animal by using a whip and urging it to run faster.

One of the greatest pleasures of a horse race is feeling the ground shake beneath a mass of thundering hooves coming barreling down the stretch. It’s a quintessential Kentucky experience, but the thrill can fade when you consider that behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred racing lies a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughterhouses.

In most flat horse races (excluding steeplechases), a horse’s pedigree is essential to its eligibility to compete in a race. A horse must have a sire and dam that are purebred members of the same breed in order to race. In addition, a race must be graded or invitational in order to attract high quality horses and be ranked accordingly.

The prestigious Palio di Siena, which is held twice each year in the city of Siena, is considered to be one of the best horse races in the world. Thousands of spectators flock to the event each year to watch the spectacle of sixteen city wards or Contrade battle it out on horseback as they parade through the streets of the medieval Tuscan town. The spectacle is a celebration of the Renaissance, as well as a display of the city’s historic culture and customs. A growing awareness of the dark side of horse racing — including abusive training methods, drug use, and the transport of injured or unruly horses to slaughterhouses — has helped fuel improvements in the industry. But more needs to be done. Click here to learn about how you can help.