Horse races are competitions in which horses are paired against one another to determine the winner. The most common type of race is a handicapped race, in which the weights that a racehorse must carry are adjusted on the basis of its age, gender, and previous performance. Other types of races include allowance races, which are open to all ages and sexes, and stakes races, in which the winning horse earns a specific amount of money from the total bets.
Racing has a long history in many countries and cultures. It is believed to have begun in ancient times, and chariot and mounted (bareback) races were part of the Olympic Games in 700-40 bce Greece. The first modern racetracks opened in the eighteenth century, and as demand for betting increased, rules were developed to organize and regulate horse races.
The earliest races were match races between two or three horses, with owners providing the purse. At first, an owner who withdrew forfeited half the purse; later this became the entire prize. Bets were placed on a horse to win, lose or place, and these bets were recorded by disinterested third parties, who became known as keepers of the match book. The most reputable match books were published by the early 19th century, and in this period, bets became public.
A major form of wagering in horse races is pari-mutuel betting, in which all bettors contribute to a pool that pays out the winnings (minus a percentage for the track management). In this system, bettors can choose whether they want a horse to win or lose, and if they win, they receive a specific amount of the total sum bet.
Modern horse races can be classified by many factors, including age, sex, distance, and time of year. Each class of race requires special training and breeding, and each has its own set of rules. Some are flat races, in which a horse must make repeated turns around a track; others, called steeplechases, feature a series of obstacles that the horse must jump over. A race may also be restricted by a geographical area, or it may be a handicapped race.
Despite some improvements, thoroughbred racing remains a risky business. Every week an average of 24 horses experience fatal breakdowns or injuries at the track, and many more are discarded when they no longer prove profitable. Meanwhile, animal rights activists have gained ground in their quest to expose the dark side of the industry, with investigative reporting highlighting training practices that can lead to catastrophic injury and death for young horses, drug use by trainers, and the gruesome fate of thousands of American racehorses sent to slaughter in foreign slaughterhouses each year. The public’s growing awareness has led to improved welfare standards and better enforcement of the law. However, the sport still struggles with a culture of corruption and cronyism that must be rooted out.