What’s in a Horse Race?

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Thousands of racehorses die each year, though that number is not fully known because the industry lacks regulation, record keeping and transparency. Eight Belles, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in almost a century, died from her exertions shortly afterward. Many others succumb to exhaustion and the ravages of race day, often resulting in blood from their lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage).

The sport of horse racing evolved from primitive contests of speed or stamina to today’s elaborate spectacles involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and enormous sums of money. But the basic concept remains unchanged. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins.

sex allowance: The difference in weight allowance between male and female horses. Females are allowed to carry three to five pounds less than males for the same race.

equine herpesvirus: The most common infectious disease of horses and other ungulates, including camels, llamas and giraffes. It causes respiratory distress, a swollen foot and leg, loss of appetite and other symptoms, and is highly contagious.

horse slang: A word or expression used by racegoers to express their sentiments, often in an unintelligible way. Some examples include “the track is a shithole,” and “that was one hell of a race.”

jockey: The rider who leads the horse in a horse race, typically by attaching a bridle to the animal’s head. The jockey is responsible for steering the horse, accelerating and decelerating it as needed and maintaining contact with the rest of the field. He or she also carries the whip, which is used to nudge the horse forward when needed and punish it when it makes mistakes.

track: A paved surface for horse racing, usually made of crushed stone and covered with a layer of sand. The track is prepared to be lightning-fast and is a key factor in the horse’s overall performance.

shadow roll: A (usually sheepskin) roll placed over a horse’s nose to prevent the animal from seeing shadows on the track and shying away from or jumping them.

win bet: A wager on a horse to come in first place. place bet: A bet on a horse to finish in second or third place. show bet: A wager on a horse that will finish in the money (first, second or third).

*PETA’s video shows footage of the treatment of two top trainers at the highest level of American thoroughbred racing. It provides a glimpse at what the public has long feared—cruelty, not just at the bottom of the racing barrel but all the way up to the winner’s circle.

**The Atlantic’s coverage of the horse race scandal includes an interview with veterinarian Scott Blasi, who was a key witness to the case.**

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