Horse races were once the primary source of wagering for the American betting public, but since 2008, their numbers have been dwindling. A combination of factors has contributed to their decline: a long-running scandal about doping, escalating purse sizes, and a general sense that horse racing is a sport for the older set. But there are signs that the industry can rebound, thanks to the accelerating technological advances that have also affected many other industries and sports.
In the early days of modern horse racing, bettors would watch the starting gate and then bet according to how many horses were crowded into the gate when it opened. This was called the pace. A horse with the fastest pace won. The rest of the horses were assigned odds based on their past performances and other data. A number of factors could influence a horse’s performance, from what it ate for breakfast to how hot it was.
When bettors compared odds and placed bets, the winners split the parimutuel, or total pool of money wagered on each race, after a deduction by the track. This was known as “taking out.” If the bettors were right and a particular horse won, they got all the money they had wagered (plus a small percentage of the money that bettors on other horses lost). In recent years, technological advances have improved horse racing. Heat sensors can monitor the environment and alert riders to potential overheating. MRIs and X-rays can scan horses for minor or major health issues. 3D printers can make casts, splints and other prosthetics for injured horses. These advances have helped keep horses and jockeys safer on the track.
Despite the advances, a dark side to horse racing remains. Pushed beyond their limits, most horses will bleed from their lungs in an event called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. To combat this, most horses are injected with Lasix, a diuretic that is noted in the racing form with a boldface “L.” The drug is intended to prevent the bleeding and give them an artificial performance boost.
But Lasix has its own consequences. It causes horses to unload epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds’ worth at a time. As a result, the horses are dehydrated. Often, they are thirsty when they enter the starting gate, and this can be a reason why some horses balk.
Breeding 1,000-pound Thoroughbreds for massive torsos and spindly legs is a recipe for breakdowns. The lungs and spine of the horse don’t reach full maturity until around age six, but a racehorse is typically thrust into intensive training at just 18 months, and racing usually begins at two. Combined with the stress of running at high speed, this means that, for every winner, thousands of horses hemorrhage or break down, and then die. If not for the handful of independent nonprofit horse rescues that network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them, most would be shipped off to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, where they are killed and dismembered by gangs that charge arbitrary and outrageous ransoms for their lives.