The Ins and Outs of the Horse Race

Horse races are the most ancient of all sports, and their basic concept has barely changed over the centuries. The sport has developed from primitive contests of speed or stamina between two horses into an elaborate spectacle with huge fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but the ultimate result remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner. Behind the romanticized facade of the horse race, however, lies a world of injuries, drug abuse and even slaughter. While spectators clad in fine clothes sip mint juleps and savor the thrill of the racing action, horses are forced to sprint — often under the threat of whips — at breakneck speeds that cause them to sustain gruesome breakdowns. In nature, horses understand self-preservation; if they’re injured, they stop and try to heal. But at the track, they’re compelled to continue running, and in a cruel twist, must try to stay ahead of the pack.

Horses are born to run. They’re designed with long legs, compact bodies and the capacity for enormous strides in short bursts. But despite the best care and training, horses’ skeletal systems are often underdeveloped when they begin training. The intense physical stress of horse racing can also be very difficult on a young, growing horse, and some horses cannot handle it at all.

As a result, most racehorses are prone to injury and disease, especially when they’re stressed and pushed hard for extended periods of time. Injuries are common and can be fatal if left untreated. Horses that are ill or infirmed at the beginning of their race careers are particularly vulnerable, as they’re not yet mature enough to handle the rigors of racing.

During the early days of thoroughbred racing, people who wanted to boost a horse’s performance could do it legally by giving it certain stimulants or injecting it with blood-enhancing hormones. The drug hydromel, for example, was used by Romans and other early racers to increase a horse’s endurance. The early Americans experimented with many other substances and methods, including cocaine and strychnine, to improve the performance of their horses.

In addition to a host of drugs and stimulants, racehorses are frequently doped with painkillers, anti-inflammatories, growth hormones and blood doping (injecting a substance that makes a horse’s red blood cells more porous, so they carry more oxygen). Racing officials in the 1700s couldn’t keep up with all the new medications, and lacked the technology to detect many. Penalties were generally weak, and trainers who broke rules in one race would simply move on to the next.

As a result, horse racing is plagued by a variety of doping violations and has a reputation for being corrupt. When journalists cover elections by framing them as a horse race instead of focusing on policy issues, voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, research suggests. The study analyzed print news coverage of state and national elections from 2004 to 2008. Researchers found that newspaper ownership patterns were the most influential factor: corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to publish horse-race coverage.