Horse racing is the most popular spectator sport in the world. Hundreds of dirt and turf races are held each day, attracting crowds in the millions. The sport is governed in different ways by each nation. In some countries the Jockey Club is the regulatory agency; in others, state or country racing commissions are responsible.
The most famous race is probably the Triple Crown series, consisting of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Other races have global cachet, including the Dubai World Cup and Royal Ascot. Some, such as the Melbourne Cup, are so prestigious that the city of Melbourne closes down for a week.
But behind the glitzy veneer of horse racing is a shadowy underworld of drug abuse, injury, and gruesome breakdowns. The horse, which must be forced to sprint-often under the threat of whips and illegal electric shock devices-can sustain serious injuries, and can even hemorrhage from the lungs. And many horses do not survive the race course.
In recent years a spate of horse deaths on the track have led to a wave of reforms in California, New York and elsewhere. Protocol now includes a necropsy, review of contributing factors and vet records, interviews with stakeholders and a public database cataloging equine fatalities. But the number of horses killed on track is far greater than official figures suggest. The equine death toll for the 2009-21 period was estimated at more than 7,200, including those killed during training and in the weeks before the races.
When it comes to the greatest races, most fans would point to a showdown between two great horses, like Secretariat’s 31-length demolition job in the 1973 Belmont Stakes or Arkle’s 1964 Gold Cup. But a great race can also be defined by the moment just before the outcome becomes clear, and the greatest showdowns test the elasticity of that moment towards breaking point.
One such great race occurred in 2002 in the Belmont Stakes, when long shot Medaglia d’Oro shocked the world by trouncing Triple Crown favorite War Emblem. Another great race is the thrombotic showdown between Monksfield and Sea Pigeon in the 1978 Champion Hurdle, in which Monksfield, who started favorite, swarmed Sea Pigeon on the final flight to win by three quarters of a length. The tense drama was described as “as thrilling a race as anyone could hope to see” by Timeform.