Horse racing is one of the oldest sports on record, entertaining the crowds long before basketball or baseball. It developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses to an event involving huge fields and immense sums of money, but its essential feature has remained unchanged throughout the centuries: the first horse over the finish line is the winner. It has evolved from a diversion for the leisure class into a global industry that attracts fans from every corner of the planet and offers billions in prize money.
The modern sport of horse racing is a complex operation that requires the cooperation of numerous parties, including horse owners, breeders, jockeys, track operators, and wagering bookmakers. The sport also involves extensive electronic monitoring equipment and the management of huge betting pools that must be distributed in accordance with strict rules to ensure the integrity of the game. The racecourse is the heart of any horse race, with thousands of dirt and turf courses operating around the world. Some are renowned for the beauty of their settings, while others have an unmistakable air of danger and excitement.
While the sport is dominated by men, horse races have a long history of being contested by women. Many women have participated in the sport as riders or grooms and have won some of the biggest prizes in the world. One of the most famous female riders was the American jockey Patty Voyles, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes on multiple occasions during the 1960s.
Although organized horse racing in the United States began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1664, it did not become truly professional until after the Civil War. It was then that the concept of standardized races based on handicapping came into being, with the objective of rendering all horses as nearly equal to each other as possible by assigning a figure, called a racing form, that takes into account factors such as weight, age, sex, and previous performance.
A good horse is not necessarily a fast horse, and the greatest races often pit two very different competitors head-to-head over long distances. An example is the 1902 duel between Ard Patrick, who won all five of the Classic races that year, and Sceptre in a 2-mile (4-km) heat that many consider the greatest Flat race ever run.
It is also not uncommon for a horse to win a race at impossible odds, as did Canonero II in 1971. This longshot was born in Venezuela and shipped to the United States before winning the Kentucky Derby. The victory was considered to be the biggest upset in horseracing history. This is the essence of what makes horse racing so fascinating to spectators and bettors alike: an unlikely underdog overcoming the odds. In this sense, horse racing is truly the sport of kings.