What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a sporting event in which participants try to win by betting on the performance of a horse, or more generally, a team of horses. The most famous horse races are the Triple Crown series of elite events in the United States, which consist of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. In addition to the Triple Crown, most countries have their own series of elite races.

The sport of racing dates back thousands of years, with chariot and bareback horse races appearing in the ancient world. There are accounts of chariot races in Homer’s Iliad, dating from the 9th or 8th century bc, and a description of a bareback horse race in the 10th-century BC Greek comedy play Aristophanes’ Birds. Later, mounted horse races were introduced, with the first modern horse race held in 1789, in France. The modern Thoroughbred, a breed of purebred derived in England from Arabian and Barb horses, was developed specifically for horse racing.

The early races were match contests between two, or at most three, horses. Pressure by the public led to the introduction of large fields and eventually a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) course. Races over shorter distances, called sprints, are also run. These are usually won by the fastest horse, though a rider’s skill and judgment is crucial to a race’s outcome.

Today, there are dozens of race tracks in the United States and hundreds around the globe. The largest racetracks host the most prestigious and lucrative races, known as major stakes races or “graded stakes” races. A horse may be eligible to enter a graded stakes race by placing in the top three in previous races.

During the American Civil War, Union officials encouraged the breeding of thoroughbreds because cavalry soldiers needed fast horses to carry them into battle. This led to the creation of the Triple Crown, a series of races that includes the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the and the Belmont Stakes. Since then, scores of countries have instituted their own series of elite races.

While growing awareness of the darker side of the horse racing industry has fueled some improvements, there remains much to do to make the sport safer for the horses. Injuries and breakdowns are common, and many racehorses’ careers end in slaughterhouses, where they are used to make glue or eaten for dog food or human consumption. A zero-tolerance drug policy, turf (grass) races only, a ban on whipping, competitive racing only after the horses’ third birthdays, and other reforms would go far to protect the health and welfare of the animals.

Support PETA’s efforts to ensure that racing regulations are reformed and enforced to put an end to this brutal sport for the sake of the horses. Click here to learn more about the issues facing this multibillion-dollar industry, including abusive training practices for young horses, drug use, and the plight of many retired racehorses who wind up in foreign slaughterhouses.