Horses have been domesticated for more than 6,000 years, Ill bet that when the first Central Asian nomad with a horse met the second Central Asian with a horse, the first one said, “Race you to that tree over there” and the second one said, “You’re on,” and their friends wagered a skin of fermented goat’s milk on the outcome.
Horse racing was a popular with the Greeks and Romans, but interest declined along with the Roman Empire. However, in the sixth century, Muslim missionaries on horseback spread riding across the Middle East along with Islam. Two centuries later the Arabs conquered Spain, riding strong, swift horses that became famous across Europe. In 1110, Henry I of England imported an Arabian stallion and mated him with strong English mares to create a tough new breed of war-horse. Informal races became popular, usually held over straight four-mile courses.
In 1174 Smithfield Track, the first public race course since Roman days, was built in London. James I and Charles II were both horse-racing enthusiasts, which is one reason the sport is nicknamed “the sport of Kings.”
Traditionally, almost all thoroughbreds trace their ancestry to one of three horses imported into England in the 1600s: the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk. (“Barb”, “Arabian” and “Turk” are all types of Arabians.) A recent genetic study indicates that a fourth horse, the Curwen Bay Barb, made an equally important contribution. These four stallions provided about one third of the genes in the current world population of half a million thoroughbreds. A mere 31 horses contributed 80 percent.
This inbreeding is due to the fact that a good pedigree adds immensely to the value of a horse–the idea being that winners breed winners. To a certain extent, that’s true: the genetic study determined that track performance is about 35 percent heredity. However, many other factors, from diet to training, also play an important role.
Horses are well-adapted for running. In the wild, horses depend on speed to survive. Their legs, thin at the bottom with strong musculature at the top, are designed for swift movement with little effort. Their broad chests contain massive lungs, for greater stamina. Their hooves, which are really single elongated toes, include an elastic tendon at the back called the frog, which acts as a shock absorber. (A 500-kilogram race horse, travelling at 60 kilometres an hour, exerts a 5,500-kilogram force on its legs with every stride.)
A running horse’s heart rate jumps from 40 beats a minute to close to 200, recirculating its 25 litres of blood every six seconds, delivering oxygen to hard-working muscles. However, the level of lactic acid in the blood, a by-product of exercise, builds rapidly, slowing the muscles. That’s why a horse that pushed to the front too quickly may fall to the rear by the finish line.
As a racehorse gathers speed and gallops in a straight line, its centre of balance moves forward. The jockey leans forward to keep himself over the centre of balance, so the animal can run as freely as possible, and to lessen wind resistance.
Although all breeding is supposedly aimed at producing fast horses, race times, especially over the longer-distance races run in England, haven’t changed much for decades. A physiological barrier may have been reached: the top race horses may already be running as fast as any horse can. Humans continue to improve their running times through better training, but, as one horseman put it, “you can’t explain to a horse why it should train harder.” Train a thoroughbred too hard, and he won’t run at all.
There’s also a concern that today’s thoroughbreds are more fragile than those of the past. Trainers today are amazed by the stamina of some early race horses. One difference is that yearling horses used to be turned out into fields in herds, competing with other horses, occasionally fighting with them, learning to be tough. Today, many yearlings are segregated and coddled, so their hides won’t be marred by scars and they’ll look good in sales rooms. These “wimpy horses” may be more subject to racing injuries.
Racing injuries are a growing concern. In 1992, 840 horses suffered fatal racing breakdowns on American tracks: one fatality for every 92 races. 3,566 broke down so severely they could not finish the race.
Horses that break down aren’t just a danger to themselves, but to their jockeys. Utterly exposed on the back of an half-tonne animal travelling more than 60 kilometres an hour, jockeys sometimes take terrible falls when horses break down.
Some experts suggest that trainers and track veterinarians, under pressure from money-conscious owners, are allowing animals to race that aren’t fit. Their concern centers on the use of drugs, particularly Lasix and Phenylbutazone, or “bute.” Lasix is a diuretic which is supposed to help prevent bleeding from the lungs. “Bute” reduces swelling and pain in joints.
The argument against both is that they tend to cover up ailments that should be treated with rest. A horse on bute doesn’t realize he’s injured, so he’ll run as hard as he ever does–and may aggravate his injury or even break a leg. An on-going study in California has shown that soreness in a horse may indicate microfractures too small to show up on the X-rays normally used by track veterinarians. These microfractures can weaken bones so much that under the stress of a race, they shatter.
A horse with a broken leg is almost always destroyed. Horses have limited blood flow to the lower leg. Ruptured blood vessels leads to a complete loss of circulation–and gangrene. As well, horses sleep standing up, so there’s never any relief from pain–and when a horse can’t put weight on one leg, the leg opposite it starts to fail as well, because it’s overloaded.
One vet is fighting this almost-automatic euthanasia, however. Dr. Ric Redden of Kentucky has successfully amputated damaged legs from horses and replaced them with artificial legs. Obviously the horse is no longer able to race, but it could still be used for breeding–or given a well-earned retirement.
These animal-welfare concerns are going to have to be dealt with–but nevertheless, it seems certain horse racing will continue to be one of the most popular spectator sports in the world.
After 6,000 years, there’s little doubt that this is a sport with “legs.”