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The Evolution of the Horse Race

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A race in which the winner is the first horse to cross the finish line. A longtime favorite among gamblers, this sport has a rich history that dates back to ancient Greece. In the modern era, it has evolved into an enormous public-entertainment business that offers fans many different ways to place wagers. The basic concept remains the same, though: one horse races against another over a specified distance and, if it wins, receives the prize money.

Until the 19th century, horse races were mainly demonstrations of the top speeds of horses to potential owners. Professional riders, known as jockeys, were employed to ride the horses and make them run as fast as possible. The races were often only a quarter, half, or mile and usually took place in open fields or on country roads.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, horse racing developed into a popular public entertainment business that involved large fields of runners, elaborate electronic monitoring equipment, and huge sums of money. The races still depend on speed and stamina, but they have morphed into a complex spectacle with a number of rules and regulations.

The first step in the process was to introduce a set of standard weights, so that horses of similar build could compete on equal terms. Then came the practice of placing bets on the outcome of a race, called handicapping. This involved comparing the speed and running abilities of each entrant with that of other horses in past races. The more a runner was expected to win, the higher his or her odds were. The earliest books that used odds were written by British jockey and race-historian Henry Boswell in the 1660s.

In addition to weighing and measuring, horses are subjected to extensive medical tests to ensure they are healthy enough to run. For decades, nearly every thoroughbred has received race-day Lasix, a diuretic that is noted on the racing form with a boldface “L.” The drug prevents pulmonary bleeding caused by hard running, and it forces the animals to unload huge amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds’ worth at a time.

Many critics say that newspapers need to do less horse race journalism and more reporting on actual events in order to improve the quality of their coverage. But it’s not just journalists who are critical of this trend: even scholars who study elections and news coverage have raised concerns about the use of horse race language in political reporting. Nonetheless, this election promises to be another exciting — and possibly historic — horse race. We hope you will join us in watching it unfold. And if you’re not already doing so, please consider supporting PETA’s efforts to reform the horse racing industry for the benefit of the horses themselves. A zero-tolerance drug policy, turf (grass) tracks only, a ban on whipping, competitive racing only after the horses’ third birthdays and other changes would go a long way to making horse racing safer for these amazing creatures.

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