Behind the Scenes of a Horse Race

In horse racing, a race is a contest of speed between horses ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies. Spectators cheer the competitors, and betting is encouraged. Horses are bred for the sport, and their bodies are pushed to the limit as they are run for pleasure or profit. Behind the romanticized façade of a horse race is a world of injuries, drugs and, occasionally, death. The race had begun in the last of the afternoon sun, and the eleven horses had settled into their strides. The dirt track was long and deep, with a clubhouse turn and a far stretch where the riders began to make their moves. War of Will had taken the early lead, but as the pack came around the far turn he faded, and McKinzie and Mongolian Groom started to gain on him. At this point, a rider’s judgment and skill were less vital to the outcome of the race. The earliest races were match contests between two, or at most three, horses. As pressure by the public increased, however, standardized events with fixed weights and distances were developed. Six-year-old horses were required to carry 168 pounds in 4-mile heats, and two victories were needed for a win. In Europe, where horse racing is most popular, the races are called steeplechases. The term stems from the fact that competitors jump over a number of obstacles, such as fences and church steeples, on natural terrain. These are arduous and dangerous races for the horses, who are prey animals. The lower legs of racehorses, especially those that run on oval tracks, take a terrible beating, straining ligaments, tendons and joints. Consequently, it is common for the lower legs to be bandaged, which protects them from self-inflicted injury. Mongolian Groom’s lower legs were wrapped in blue splints, and he also wore a heavy hood to keep his attention focused on the competitors ahead of him, as well as a shadow roll across his nose to reduce his tendency to startle at passing shadows. Although the deaths of horses are rare, many in horse racing are keenly aware of how easy it is for a single accident to dominate race day and cast a pall over the whole event. In an effort to avoid such an incident, the industry has adopted a series of safety standards and begun to monitor injuries more closely. Those inside the business are hoping that these changes can prevent a series of fatalities from overshadowing the Belmont Stakes. If they do, the survival of the sport may depend on it.