There are essentially three kinds of people in horse racing: the crooks who dangerously drug and otherwise abuse their horses; the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest; and those masses in the middle, neither naive nor cheaters but honorable souls who know the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but still don’t do all they can to fix it. On that March day, at Santa Anita, all eyes were on the track, a mile-long oval that glowed pink in the sun and had been flooded with oats, hay and other feed. The crowd was 50,000 strong, and the race was about to start.
In the days before pari-mutuel betting, horse owners placed private bets on their own horses, or threw money into the pool at the track for a place (win) or show (top three finishers). This system eventually led to bookmaking, in which those who accept bets make odds, or predictions about which horses will win and lose, and then collect winning bets plus a percentage for the management. It also led to the emergence of horse races, in which bettors place multiple bets, often on several different horses.
The first organized racing in the New World was held on a Long Island plain shortly after the British occupation of 1665. It wasn’t a traditional race, but rather a quarter-mile sprint between two wealthy country gentlemen convinced they owned the faster horse. This bawdy affair became known as a path race and was popular in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas.
Until the Civil War, American Thoroughbreds were built for stamina and not speed. After that war, the breeders changed direction and focused on speed, and the sport grew to become America’s largest spectator event.
By the 1860s, horse racing was big business, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single winner to earn six figures. A horse could be entered in as many as 200 races a year, and most were heats of six-year-old horses carrying 168 pounds at four-mile heats. This grueling schedule is one reason why dead racehorses sometimes have fractured skulls, twisted spines and severed legs, with sometimes skin as the only thing keeping them together.
In modern times, every thoroughbred is injected on race day with Lasix, which is noted in the racing form with a boldface “L.” This diuretic prevents pulmonary bleeding, which hard running causes in some horses. Without it, a serious bleeder might be forced to retire and die in the paddock. Lasix is so successful that it’s now a part of the training regimen for all horses. But a horse doesn’t achieve its peak performance until age five, and the escalating cost of purses, breeding fees and sales prices have resulted in fewer races being run with older horses. Those that are run can have career-ending injuries such as cardiovascular collapse or an aortic dissection, and some racehorses die on the course from blunt-force trauma such as a collision with another horse.