What Happens at a Horse Race?

When horse races are held in public, a large screen is erected to block spectators from seeing the horses fall or become injured. The euphemism for the event is “a dark screen.” It’s a grim and unavoidable fact that a lot of horses die during races, but the cause is rarely clear-cut. In some cases, veterinarians are able to save them; in others they can’t.

Whether you love or loathe the sport, racing is fascinating and has shaped our culture for thousands of years. The history of the sport is rich and full of intrigue, but it also reveals a darker side. The public is increasingly unwilling to see animals tortured to entertain them, and this has prompted improvements in safety standards at tracks. Growing awareness of the exploitation of young horses, abuse of drug-using jockeys and horses being transported to foreign slaughterhouses has fueled the improvements.

In the beginning, organized horse racing was match contests between two, or at most three, horses. Later, pressure by the public produced events with larger fields. Today, Thoroughbred races are typically 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) races with a field of 20 or more horses.

Before a race begins, the stewards, patrol judges and a team of motion-picture photographers inspect the track and check for rule violations. Then, the stewards release the horses into the starting gate, which is electrically operated at most tracks. The stewards keep watch until the winning horse crosses the finish line, and the results are posted.

Once the race begins, a steward or patrol judge may flag a horse for jumping out of the running lane. The flagger may then ask the horse’s owner to pull up. If the owner refuses, the horse is pulled up by a steward’s assistant and taken away for treatment.

The winner of the race is awarded the purse, or monetary prize, which the track’s owners split. Usually the top four or five horses share the prize money. The rest of the participants are paid a smaller sum by the track.

In the days leading up to a big race, the central square in Siena is transformed beyond recognition. A gritty mixture of clay and earth is packed onto the golden cobbles, creating a hard, compact track for the horses. Bleachers are erected for the thousands of fans who attend.

When the gates open, the horses are urged to break cleanly and quickly. Those that are bred to run at a fast pace—called the pacing gait—wear hobbles, which are straps that connect the front and back legs on each side of the body to help them avoid “breaking stride.” The slower-moving trotters do not wear hobbles.