The Rules of the Horse Race

Horses have long been the preferred mode of transport for the upper classes, from the mighty warhorses of antiquity to today’s sleek and fast thoroughbreds. While the sport has evolved and modernized with advances in technology and science, it has also retained many of its rules, traditions, and etiquette.

One of the most famous horse races in the world is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, which takes place at Chantilly Racecourse in France. It’s an important event for horse racing in part because it marks a horse’s “classic age”—the year at which it is considered to have reached peak ability. However, escalating purses, breeding fees, and sale prices have led to fewer races being run with horses beyond the classic age of three.

Generally, the older a horse is, the lower its chances are of winning a race. This is because horses tend to decline in speed and strength as they age. To make up for this, some of the most famous horse races offer different weight allowances—a two-year-old competes with more weight than a three-year-old or a four-year-old. Females, meanwhile, carry lighter weight than males. This system helps level the playing field between the best and the rest.

In addition to adjusting the weight that a horse must carry, certain races are designated as “handicaps,” meaning they are designed specifically to test the horses’ abilities by determining their form. In this type of race, the horses’ weight is adjusted by age, sex, barrier position, and training. Those who are deemed to be in the best form are awarded the highest prize amounts.

Despite this, the sport is still plagued by issues related to animal cruelty and doping. Horses are pushed to the limit—often past their physical limits—and are forced to ingest a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs that mask injuries, improve performance, and enhance stamina. For instance, horses who have been pushed too hard and overexerted may experience exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, which causes them to bleed from their lungs. To prevent this, they are given a drug called Lasix, which is a powerful diuretic with performance-enhancing properties.

During the early stages of a horse race, bettors like to study a horse’s coat in the walking ring before it enters the starting gate. If the coat is bright and rippling with sweat and muscled excitement, it’s believed that the beast is ready to take on the competition. However, in the case of Mongolian Groom—as well as his fellow runners—the horse balked at the starting gate, and it was believed that he was frightened or angry. As a result, bettors began to turn away from the race, and Santa Anita management was forced to halt betting for the duration of the Breeders’ Cup meeting in early 2021. The horse ultimately finished dead last. The cause of the balking was never determined, but a subsequent necropsy found that Mongolian Groom had been taking excessive doses of Lasix. Eventually, the drug was banned from racing.