What is a Horse Race?

Horse race is a common phrase we use to describe nail-biting political contests and a wide variety of other events. But how did the term morph from describing equestrian competitions to refer to any type of contest? It is a misnomer to use it in this way, because the word race inherently imply a competition between two or more competing entities. In fact, it is a misleading rephrasing of the true meaning of the word race—to run through a course with great speed and endurance.

If you were at the Preakness last Saturday, you probably saw the crowd erupt when the leaders made their moves in the backstretch. The horses moved with huge strides and hypnotic smoothness, and the jockeys’ whips were cracking against the bridles of the big chestnut colts. War of Will took the lead early, but he was tiring around the clubhouse turn as McKinzie and Mongolian Groom surged. By the top of the stretch, the three were a half length apart and Vino Rosso was making his move on the outside.

It was a thrilling and exciting race, and it could have been even more exciting had the winner not been a horse named Eight Belles, who died after her run in 2008. She was just 3 years old and was America’s favorite filly at the time of her death. Her death and that of her stablemate Medina Spirit over a decade later were the most prominent examples of a phenomenon that has plagued racing for decades: horses regularly die during races and in training due to the exorbitant physical stress of performance.

In the wake of their deaths, there have been some improvements in the industry’s treatment of injured and sick horses. But those improvements have not prompted an overall change in the business model of racing, which still puts profit above all other considerations. Rather than listening to the concerns of animal rights activists, racing aficionados often dismiss them as the work of “haters” and then continue to make decisions that will continue to harm horses.

The next step for racing must be an adequately funded, industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses leaving the track. Currently, ex-racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline and are shipped to Mexico or Canada where they’re often bled out with cruelly high ransom demands by buyers. If not for the handful of independent nonprofit rescues who network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them, these horses would suffer a hellish end.