A horse race is a competitive event in which horses are pushed to the limit to compete for a prize. While the affluent spectators sip mint juleps in their fancy outfits, horses are forced to run—often under threat of whips—at speeds that often cause injuries and even hemorrhage from the lungs. Behind this romanticized facade is a world of abusive training practices, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The sport is also subject to growing criticism for its doping and illegality.
Until recently, the sport of racing was plagued by a variety of doping methods, from simple painkillers to sophisticated blood doping. The industry could not keep up with the rapid development of new drugs, and rules were frequently violated. For instance, powerful painkillers designed for humans were injected into race preparations, and antipsychotics and anti-epilepsy medicines used to treat human ailments bled over into training. Blood doping—injection of a drug to increase red blood cell count for more oxygen-rich blood—was another common practice.
In addition, many horses are injected with Lasix, a diuretic that prevents exercise-induced pulmonary bleeding, a dangerous condition that occurs when the horse runs hard and quickly. Those injected with Lasix can be seen on the betting sheets marked with a boldface “L.” Lasix is widely considered to be the most potent performance-enhancing drug in the industry, although it is not anabolic.
Most flat races are handicapped, which means the weights that horses must carry during a race are adjusted in relation to their age and distance, sex, and other factors. Fillies are allowed to carry lower weights than males. In addition, a horse may receive weight allowances based on its previous performance in the same type of race, or if it is ridden by an apprentice jockey (a student jockey).
Many horses reach their peak ability at age five, and the escalating costs of purses, breeding fees, and sales prices have led to fewer races with horses over three years old. A few horses, however, are deemed to be so talented that they can continue to excel in older races.
Jumps races are similar to flat horse races, but the horses must clear obstacles, and their distances are longer. Generally, jumps horses start as flat racers and then move to hurdling (cross-country hurdles), then steeplechases, if they are thought capable of it.