A horse race is a competition between two or more horses for speed and stamina. It has evolved into a vast public-entertainment business and a scientific field of research, but its basic concept remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner. The earliest races were primitive contests of speed and endurance between animals in loose herds, but the modern sport is characterized by crowded fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, enormous sums of money, and a huge industry supporting it. Many people argue that the sport is unethical and corrupt, but others believe that the sport’s enduring popularity is due to its intrinsic value as a diversion and form of entertainment.
In a typical race, a large number of thoroughbreds, each wearing a numbered silk, will race around a track with a set distance to cover. The horses are harnessed to a saddle and ridden by jockeys. The winner is declared after a steward examines a photographic image of the race to determine whether the winning horse crossed the line ahead of all other contenders. Prize money is distributed to the winner, 2nd place finishers and 3rd place finishers, depending on the race.
The earliest thoroughbreds were bred to run as fast as possible, which led to the development of racing, as well as to the sport of breeding. Today’s racehorses are bred to be fast and beautiful, but their short careers of a few races followed by years at stud mean that they must run so hard that they sometimes suffer gruesome breakdowns or even hemorrhage from the lungs. This traumatic experience is the source of much of the sport’s criticism.
In 2020 Congress decided that it was unwilling to let so many animals die for the entertainment of a few enthusiasts, and began to apply new safety standards to horse racing. As the new standards have come into effect, the death rate from racing has dropped significantly.
As the earliest races were primitive contests of speed or endurance between two animals in loose herds, a horse’s strength and courage in running the race are the most important factors in its success. In more recent times, however, the focus has shifted to a jockey’s skill in coaxing a maximum performance from a horse. The rider’s ability to communicate with a horse, predict the horse’s behavior and adjust the speed of his riding will play a vital role in the outcome of a race.
A mathematical model by Francesca Aftalion and Quentin Mercier, two EHESS mathematicians, suggests that horses with the best performances in a race maximize their energy output by using muscles requiring oxygen, which can be limited during a fast sprint, rather than the less efficient anaerobic ones that use energy but also produce waste products that lead to fatigue. To test their theory, the researchers embedded GPS tracking devices into French racing saddles and watched digital images of the horses race on a computer screen.