What Is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest in which horses, either ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies, compete to win a purse. Typically, races are held on tracks with a winner declared by judges or a crowd that votes for the winning horse. While the majority of horse races are competitive and contested by top-quality competitors, some have been marked by egregious incidents of animal cruelty and gruesome breakdowns, drug use, and slaughter. The public’s awareness of the darker side of the industry has fueled improvements in training practices and horse welfare, and many activists have pledged to continue pushing for more serious reforms.

Historically, thoroughbred racing in the United States has been a very structured system. Trainers prepare their horses according to a schedule known as the condition book, which consists of a series of races set over a period of weeks or months. These races are intended to give each horse a chance to improve or maintain its form. A trainer can also pay to nominate a horse for a stakes race, which is usually a more competitive contest that requires special preparation and high wagering limits.

The condition books are used to determine a horse’s eligibility for a particular race, but it is not always possible to fill all the available spots in each race. The result is that some races are canceled or replaced with substitute races. These alternate races may be on the same day, but they are not considered to be part of the original condition book.

In addition to the traditional race types, there are a variety of other special races, such as claiming races. These are for horses who have been declared for a specific race or series of races but are not fast enough to compete at the highest levels of the sport. The claiming system allows trainers to get their horses racing without having to risk them in higher-level races and offers the potential for a good reward (wins) or a bad consequence (being claimed).

Another type of race is the sex allowance, in which female horses (fillies and mares) are allowed to carry less weight than males. These races are usually restricted by age and gender, but can include a mix of horses.

A common injury for horses in a horse race is a fracture of the sesamoids, two small bones located in front of the ankle bone, which connects the fetlock joint to the backbone. There are four common types of sesamoid fractures: apical, abaxial, axial, and basilar.

It’s a scene that plays out at racetracks more frequently than anyone wants: a horse is pulled up and out of competition as spectators cheer or bet on it. A track veterinarian, who has been preparing for this moment, quickly removes the saddling equipment and begins examining the horse, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. It’s a grim sight, but a necessary one in a sport where horses are forced to sprint—often while being whipped or struck with electric shock devices—at speeds that can lead to serious injuries and even hemorrhage from the lungs.