The horse race, a sport dating back more than 2,000 years, has developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina into a huge spectacle that involves large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. Yet its basic concept remains largely unchanged: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner.
The horses broke cleanly from the gate, slipping their stirrups and charging forward with huge strides and hypnotic smoothness. War of Will held the inside position, hugging the rail, with Mongolian Groom and McKinzie a length behind. But in the long stretch, the big chestnut Vino Rosso swept into contention on the outside.
Horses don’t naturally like to run so hard and fast for so long, especially on oval tracks where they are subjected to a brutal pounding of their lower legs. That pounding, often augmented by “encouragement” (whipping), gives the animals’ tendons, ligaments, and joints a tremendous strain.
In order to continue running in such a relentless manner, the horses must be conditioned. Most trainers use a combination of exercises and medications to help the horses build the endurance required to finish the race. But even with the best conditioning, a horse is likely to suffer some sort of physical injury during the course of a race.
Many of the injuries are the result of a collision with another horse or with a fence. These are often serious and can even be fatal. Other common injuries include shin soreness, lacerations, and broken ankles and hocks. The hock is the large bone in the hind leg just below and behind the stifle joint. When a horse is struck on the hock, it can lose a great deal of blood and may become paralyzed from the knee down.
Most of the other injuries are due to the hard running. Many of the horses in a race have been injected that morning with Lasix, a diuretic that is marked on racing forms with a boldface “L.” The drug prevents the pulmonary bleeding that hard running can cause in some horses and that can leave both jockey and horse coated with pools of blood.
Whether the injury is minor or major, it can have a profound effect on the outcome of the race. A horse with a broken ankle, for example, is unlikely to win the race, while one with a bruised shin could easily be disqualified from the competition. Dishonest behavior on the part of a jockey can also lead to disqualification, but such incidents are rare, since jockeys usually don’t want to risk their licences, reputations and livelihoods by behaving dishonestly. It is, however, not uncommon for a jockey to be penalized for using excessive whipping in an effort to win the race. The penalties range from warnings to fines and suspensions. The most severe penalty for a jockey is a disqualification from the sport. This is most often imposed on the grounds that the jockey has lost control of his/her mount.