What Is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest between one or more horses, usually on an oval track, with organized betting on the outcome. It is an ancient sport, practiced in civilizations including Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Babylon, Syria, and Arabia. It plays an important role in myth and legend, as for example the race between the steeds of Odin and Hrungnir in Norse mythology. It is also a term used in English-speaking countries to refer to a close, competitive contest, such as a political election.

Running fast is in a horse’s nature, but to win a race, they need more than innate ability. They need training to outrun their opponents, and they need encouragement–whipping–to keep going when they are tired. The lower legs of racing horses take a pounding, straining tendons, ligaments, and joints. Mongolian Groom’s lower hind legs were wrapped in blue bandages to reduce his sensitivity to the whip and to prevent him from kicking himself, a common cause of injury in racehorses.

In addition to a whip, racehorses often need sedatives and painkillers to help them compete. They may be given blood-doping drugs to boost their endurance and mask pain, a practice that can be particularly dangerous for older or injured horses. Antipsychotics and antiepilepsy drugs designed for humans may also be used to calm a horse down and make him more likely to run hard, even when he is sore and might not otherwise be inclined to do so. Racing officials have long lacked the capacity to detect these substances, and penalties are often weak.

Despite these problems, the sport is popular in many parts of the world and generates huge sums of money. During the 2023 season, there were more than 400 recorded fatal injuries to thoroughbreds, a record number that prompted an industry-wide rethink of safety and drug policies. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, passed in 2020, represents a landmark step toward improved regulation. But the law’s implementation has been slowed by lawsuits filed by racetracks and by lawmakers who are seeking to block it.

A growing body of research suggests that when journalists cover elections with a focus on who is ahead and behind in the polls, rather than policy issues—what’s known as horse race coverage—the public, candidates, and journalism itself suffer. This collection of recent research examines the consequences of this approach to election reporting, and makes recommendations for improving it.