The Meaning of a Horse Race

The term horse race is used so loosely that it can refer to any contest where competitors are closely matched, whether it’s a sporting event or a political contest. The mudslinging, name calling and attack ads that mark many presidential campaigns can easily become the equivalent of a horse race in which the real issues at stake are lost in the shuffle. The use of the word in a political sense has long been criticized, and many scholars argue that news outlets should focus more on explaining the actual policies at issue rather than simply trying to ‘horse race’ their opponents.

The earliest horse races were match races between two horses or one man’s horse against another, often with wagers as the motivation. An agreement between owners could stipulate that if an owner withdrew, his horse forfeited half or sometimes the whole purse; these agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties and called a “match book.” One early example was An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729).

In the 1800’s, short racing fell out of favor, and dash racing became the norm; a few yards gained in speed gave jockeys more to work with, and their skills improved along with those of the horses they rode. The era of great thoroughbreds such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed saw the popularity of horse racing reach its peak in America.

By the 1930’s, the sport had begun to wane, with economic prosperity and depression, war and peace taking their toll, and with the introduction of pari-mutuel betting (a French system of betting where winning bettors get all of the money they wagered, minus a small percentage taken by the track). In the 1980’s, horse racing experienced its last significant resurgence, with spectators flocking to tracks in droves to see a new generation of superstar horses.

The sport has also been plagued by allegations of doping. In 1909, California banned horse racing, not to promote the welfare of horses but to stamp out the illegal betting that fueled it; a ballot measure allowed wagering on the sport to begin again in 1933. The Jockey Club sought to reduce the prevalence of doping by establishing a code of conduct and insisting that horses be drug tested before a race.