What Makes a Great Horse Race?

horse race

Horse racing is a sport in which people wager on the outcome of a competition between two or more horses. While it has evolved over the centuries into a modern spectacle with huge fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money, the essential feature remains unchanged: the winner is the horse that crosses the finish line first. It is also a dangerous sport for horses and their riders, who are known as jockeys. The sport exposes horses to high speeds and forces them to run in confined spaces, which can cause them to lose control of their legs or feet, resulting in fractures and lacerations. The sport can also be dangerous for the horses’ hooves, which are constantly flexed and compressed while running at high speed, causing them to crack.

There is something about a great race that transcends the results and lifts a particular performance into immortality. Usually it takes the setting, with prestigious races on big stages, and sometimes the horses themselves – such as Secretariat’s demolition job in the Belmont Stakes or Arkle’s 1964 Gold Cup. A great showdown will often be a head-to-head between champions of different generations, such as Grundy and Bustino in the Derby and Irish Derby of 1914, or Sea Bird’s stunning six-length routing of an international field at the 1965 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

The most important factor in determining a great race, however, is the quality of the opposition and the achievements of the horses involved. Many of the world’s top races are classified as graded stakes or “classics” and have minimum requirements for participants, such as winning a certain number of races over a specified distance or finishing in a specific place in other races. There are also higher-class races known as group or “conditions” races in England and France and set weights races in Australia and New Zealand.

As dash racing became the rule, a few extra yards in a race grew in importance, and the skill of the rider in coaxing that advantage from his mount was critical. The greatest dash races were a test of tenacity as well as speed, with the best riders able to extract the maximum from their mounts while under pressure and in difficult circumstances.

A political horse race might be tedious if it were merely who’s up/who’s down, but that has never been the case in America, where campaign coverage resembles a horse race more than anything else. In fact, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell once counted 1,295 horse-race stories in the paper, compared to just 594 on the issues. While telling voters who’s ahead and who’s behind is important, it shouldn’t take up all the space.