A horse race is a competition between two or more horses on a flat track, typically contested over distances of up to four miles (6.4 km). Races over shorter distances, commonly known as sprints, are usually seen as tests of speed, while longer races are often regarded as tests of stamina.
The sport is governed in different ways in the various nations where it takes place. In England the Jockey Club is responsible for long-term policy, and in most other countries it is regulated by state racing commissions. The governing body has the power to sanction tracks, ban jockeys and trainers and expel horses. It also has the power to establish minimum weights for racehorses.
In the United States, the Triple Crown is a series of races consisting of the Kentucky Derby (1875), Preakness Stakes (1873) and Belmont Stakes (1867). Winning all three races within five weeks is an extremely difficult task. Several horses have tried, but none have succeeded since 1978.
Behind the romanticized facade of thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. The sport is a multibillion-dollar industry in which horses are forced to sprint, often under the threat of whips and electric shock devices, at speeds so high that they can sustain serious injuries and even hemorrhage from their lungs. Trainers and veterinarians keep injured horses racing by giving them a variety of legal drugs that mask pain, control inflammation and prevent the horses from becoming too fatigued to continue running.
Many of the horses competing in major international races are Thoroughbreds, the breed created in England for horseracing and whose descendants have become world-renowned. However, there are a significant number of races that are contested by horses of other breeds or even by full-blooded wild horses. Traditionally, larger mature horses have been preferred in these races and stamina is as important as speed.
The majority of Thoroughbred racehorses reach their peak at age three, which is considered the classic racing age. The escalating size of purses and the money to be made from breeding fees and sales have led to the decline in the number of races that are held with horses over the age of four, although there are still some very prestigious races for older horses such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Caulfield Cup and Sydney Cup in Australia, Queen Elizabeth Stakes in England, and the Emperor’s Cup in Japan. Some horses are able to continue to race well past the age of 10. Despite this, most retire at an early age because they have reached their physical and mental limits. Some horses are then retired to stud farms, where they can produce future champions for the sport. Others are sold for slaughter or euthanized. Many of the horses that are euthanized or retired have been injured during their careers. These injuries include strained muscles, sprained tendons and hairline fractures. Some have been severely lame and are unable to run, while others are so injured that they must be put down.