How to Win a Horse Race

A horse race is a sport in which humans wager on the finishing order of horses in a horse race, with the winner receiving the entire amount wagered, the second-place finisher getting half of it, and the third-place finisher receiving a smaller portion of it. In the 19th century, wagering evolved from private bets accepted by individuals to a system known as pari-mutuel, in which all bettors contribute to the same pool and share in the prize money for winners and runners up, minus a percentage for management of the track.

In the midst of one scandal after another, racing is struggling to find its way to a respectable future. But it will take more than just a little tinkering with policies. To truly act in the best interests of these equine athletes, it will require an ideological reckoning at the macro business and industry level, and an unprecedented shift in what we expect from racehorses—from a rethink of how they are bred and raised to a comprehensive wraparound aftercare solution for those who leave the sport behind.

For decades, virtually every thoroughbred in America has received race-day Lasix, an injection of a diuretic that’s marked on the form with a boldface “L.” The drug is given to reduce pulmonary bleeding caused by hard running. The drug also causes horses to unload epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds at a time.

Until recently, race horses were often kept in a crowded and unsanitary environment that was hard on the animals’ joints, tendons and ligaments. Fortunately, the advent of better veterinary care and the growth of horse breeding farms has led to more spacious stalls for racehorses, as well as improved dietary options and exercise regimens that are gentler on these large, sensitive animals.

While horse breeders and owners have always tried to get their horses into the most prestigious races, these days it takes more than just a good pedigree to make the cut. To qualify for a race such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes or Belmont Stakes, a horse must earn a certain number of points based on its performances over a series of designated distances. This formula is designed to identify the most talented and competitive racehorses.

But it’s also a formula that has led to a lot of mediocre racehorses making their way through the system. And as a result, many of them—like Eight Belles—have met untimely and tragic ends. This number could be in the thousands if not for the efforts of independent nonprofit rescue groups that network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them.