“…and they’re off!” the announcer exclaims. Suddenly, a herd of horses storm out of their gates and hurtle past a jam-packed clubhouse of spectators. The jockeys squeeze their legs tight into the horses’ sides, vigorously spurring them on with rider-crops in hand. Their sprinting hooves kick up clouds of grass, dirt, and/or mud. The herd circles past, bears left around a curve, and disappears into the horizon. They then zoom past in the opposite direction. The announcer updates the crowd. He apprises them of which horse is in which place and position, and he does so at a mile-a-minute! The track is oval-shaped…usually six furlongs to a mile-and-a-half. The riders close in on the final stretch. They dash towards the finish.
The jockeys slope forward eagerly…their horses’ heads bobbing…all the hooves appear through a smearing of light! The horses’ legs accelerate like pistons on an engine. The noise of the crowd continues to emanate and crescendo. All the bettors burst at the seams with anticipation and suspense. “Come on, Fantastic Fox…Come on, Hooves of Glory…Come on, Annabellissimo!!” And then…the race is over. One horse wins, another places, and a third shows. Bettors cash or crumble their tickets. The rush dissipates, and the crowd collects itself. 30 minutes later, the same song and dance returns.
Many political commentators will often refer to candidates engaging in a “horse race.” But an actual horse race is much different. Horse-racing- for better or worse- has been a deep part of American pastimes/leisure from even before the dawn of the republic. The first known instance of it was in 1665 with the establishment of the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York1. Today, this section is known as Hempstead Plains of Long Island, New York1. New York’s colonial governor, Richard Nicolls, supervised the race.
In 1674, the first record of quarter-mile length races appeared in Henrico County, Virginia. Two horses raced down the village’s streets/lanes for 400 meters, and people referred to the contest as the “Quarter Horse.”
John Tayloe III from the Octagon House (D.C.) and Charles Carnan Ridgley from Hampton founded the Washington Jockey Club in 1797. They designed its first racecourse four blocks from the White House (extending from 17th and 20th Streets and across Pennsylvania Avenue into Lafayette Park)5. In 1802, they relocated the course to Holmead Farm two miles north of the White House (Meridian Hill)6.
Thoroughbred racing began, though, in 1868 with the introduction of the American Stud Book. It was a sport that nearly everyone enjoyed during the progressive era, and, according to one commentator (Steven A. Reiss): “Thoroughbred racing was the rare sport that was trending with both social and economic elites and the lower classes”2.
Wealthy jockey club owners, as well as those who bred and raced horses, kept the sport alive. By 1890, 314 tracks operated in the United States, and, in 1894, one group formed the American Jockey Club3. Social resistance to gambling initially threatened the bookmaking industry (those who took bets, calculated odds, and paid out winnings) and horse-racing itself throughout the early 20th century, but the advent of parimutuel betting in 1908 turned the racing industry around4.
Horse racing flourished up until World War II. The major event that re-popularized the sport was the Triple Crown, a series of three races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. The Kentucky Derby (held every early May) is quite a snazzy affair for many. People like to dress up in suits & bright sundresses, don fancy springtime hats, and drink mint julips. “Derby parties” were especially popular amongst young baby boomers in the 1970s/80s.
Some of the nation’s most famous racetracks include the Fairgrounds in New Orleans (opened 1838), Belmont Park in Elmont, New York (opened 1905), Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California (opened 1934), Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky (opened 1875), Pimlico Race Course outside Baltimore, Maryland (opened 1870), and the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York (opened 1863).
Like many other sites, Saratoga only operates for approximately a month a year. Many consider it the oldest major sporting venue of any kind in the U.S. (but it’s the 4th oldest racetrack)7. In 1857, the Empire Racecourse opened on an island in the Hudson River near Albany, but that operation didn’t last very long8. Saratoga Springs itself was the site of many “trials of speed and exhibitions of horses” at county fairs as early as 1822. The city built the Saratoga Trotting Course in 1847 in anticipation of the New York State Fair, and they hosted its first harness race on August 14th of that year.
On August 3, 1863, John Morrissey, a casino operator & future congressman, organized the first thoroughbred race card on the Saratoga Trotting Course. Morrissey purchased 125 acres of land from across the old standard-bred track, built a grandstand, and called the venue Saratoga Race Course10,11.
Saratoga Race Course has been in use almost every year since 1864. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) operates Saratoga Race Course, as well as Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Saratoga’s racecourse consists of a main (dirt) track that has a 1 1/8-mile (9-furlong/1,811 meter) circumference. Its turf (grassy) track is 1-mile long (8-furlongs). Its official name is the Mellon Turf Course (in honor of Andrew Mellon, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, and his family). Finally, Saratoga has an inner turf track with a circumference of 7 furlongs (1,408 meters)12.
Undoubtedly the most famous racehorse in United States history is Seabiscuit, whose saga inspired both a nonfiction bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand and a subsequent film (with Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper). But while spectacular wins are memorable, so are spectacular losses, and four major ones occurred at Saratoga. “Man o’ War,” who suffered his only defeat in 21 starts while racing at Saratoga Racecourse, lost to Upset in the 1919 Stanford Stakes. 100-1 longshot Jim Dandy defeated Gallant Fox, the 1930 Triple Crown winner, in the 1930 Travers Stakes. Secretariat was the 1973 Triple Crown winner, but Onion defeated him at the 1973 Whitney Handicap. In 2015, Keen Ice defeated 2015 Triple Crown winner and 1-5 favorite, American Pharoah, in the Travers Stakes (American Pharoah’s second career loss).
How do bettors select a winning horse (or at least try to do so)? First, they start with the “odds.” The odds tell them how much to pay and how much they’ll receive if the horse wins. 4-7 odds, e.g., means that for every $4 they pay, they’ll receive $7 if the horse wins.
The bettor can only place odds on a horse coming in second or third, but they will receive less if the horse places (comes in second) or shows (comes in third). Bettors can also increase their winnings by picking the order in which the horses finish. If they “box” the horses, they bet that the three they pick will come in any order (so long as they all come in first, second, or third). If they pick an “exacta,” they bet that the horses will finish in a specific order. Odds can change throughout the course of the day. Other types of bets include Quinellas, Trifectas, Superfectas, Daily Doubles, and Picks 1-6.
Racecourses will frequently pick a “favorite” horse, and often, they’ll “scratch” one (eliminate it from the race). Horseracing literature will provide attendees with all the information they need to make an informed bet, should they choose to do so (some people just like to pick horses at random). That information includes the horse’s number, its name, the horse’s owner and trainer, the overall purse, where the horse has raced before (if it has raced before), what position it finished in, and its finishing distance from the horse behind it (some horses win by a length…others by a nose).
The most important piece of information bettors can have, though, is an understanding of the horse itself. There are numerous breeds of horses- Arabians, Friesians, Mustangs, Appaloosas, Clydesdales, Shires, and, of course, Thoroughbreds. Setting dogs and cats aside, horses are probably the one creature that humanity has spent the most amount of time alongside (at least historically speaking). We rode horses everywhere, we drove them into battle, we kept them on our farms, we performed stunts with them, and we raced them.
French zoologist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon called horses the “proudest conquest of Man”14. Horses appeared at the gravesides of Scythian kings and in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs14. The ancient Greeks created the centaur- a half horse, half human- and they deemed white stallions to be the supreme sacrifice to the gods14. The ancient Greeks considered a beautiful and well-trained horse to be the ultimate status symbol in their country14. Philosophers Socrates and Aristotle frequently referenced horses in many of their works. There have been many famous horses throughout history (some fictional, some real)- Bucephalus (Alexander the Great’s charger), Incitatus (whom the mentally unsound Roman senator Caligula made a member of his court), Roan Barbery (Richard II’s stallion), and…finally, who could forget Mr. Ed?
A mature male horse is known as a stallion, a castrated stallion is called a gelding, a female horse is known as a mare, and young horses are known as foals (young male foals are colts, and young female foals are fillies)14. Modern domesticated horses are usually about 15 hands (152.cm or 60 inches) high, and their colors vary- black, bay, chestnut/sorrel, palomino (cream to bronze, with a flaxen or silvery mane and tail), cream-colored, or white14. Horses have long leg bones that pivot on pulley-like joints14. These pulley-like joints restrict movement to the fore and aft sections of their bodies, and their limbs are levered to their muscle masses in such a way that it enables them to efficiently use up energy14.
Horses have a rounded skull that houses a large and complex brain14. Their herbivorous diet consists of grasses, oats, grains, and hay, and they use at least 36-40 high-crowned teeth (12 incisors, 4 canines, 12 premolars, and 12 molars) to grind up all their vegetative nutrition14. Horses have extremely large eyes located on the sides of their head. They can allegedly detect yellow and blue but not red and green14. Their senses of smell and hearing are seemingly keener than ours14. According to biologist George Gaylord Simpson:
“Legs for running and eyes for warning have enabled horses to survive through the ages, although subject to constant attack by flesh eaters that liked nothing better than horse for supper”14.
When discussing horses and horse-racing, we cannot avoid the ultimate elephant (so to speak) in the room. Is horse racing unethical? Is it cruel? Not universally. In some cases, it certainly is. But every case depends on how the owners, trainers, and others treat their horses. If they tyrannize, abuse, and/or neglect their horse, it absolutely is. Horses are not self-aware like we are (as far as we know), so the immorality that underpins something like human slavery wouldn’t apply here. Therefore, if those who work with horses properly feed, shelter, care for, and medically attend to them, their actions wouldn’t be considered unethical or cruel.
Horses are prey animals and like to stay in packs to avoid predators. Their instinct is to run…and, more importantly, to run together as a herd. Now, a lot of races are held in the summer, and horses generally prefer cooler temperatures. But after every race, the groomsmen hose the horses down and feed them peppermint patties. So, life as a Saratoga racehorse is not too bad!
Let’s shift things up for a moment, though, to the other animal that participates in this sport—the human being! Granted, this animal can accomplish multitudes of things that its equestrian partner cannot. People can build bridges and erect skyscrapers, write poems and operas, put on plays, drive automobiles, develop medicine and technology, use smartphones and computers, and soar into outer space. If horses have accomplished any of those tasks, they’ve kept their accomplishments completely under wrap. But horses also don’t struggle with the acute existential issues that we do. They don’t contemplate their own mortality or question the meaning in their lives (as far as we know). Can they experience addiction like humans do? Potentially. But it would be very rare for them to stumble upon something truly addicting all on their own. In our case, though, it’s a much different story.
That of course is the other major elephant (so to speak) in the room when discussing racehorses (or, more specifically, gambling on racehorses). Gambling of course takes many forms. A person can bet on games such as roulette, poker, craps, slot machines, major league sporting events, the stock market, and, well, really anything. Is gambling bad? It is if it ruins you…if you become addicted to it. Gambling as an addiction doesn’t follow a path that is much different from other addictions, though (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, shopping, junk food, sex). There is the instant gratification and the reward, and then the dopaminergic impulse to keep pursuing it repeatedly. Gradually the “hit” needs to become stronger, because every time you receive it, you keep dropping “below baseline.”
The American Psychiatric Association used to classify “pathological gambling” as an impulse-control disorder instead of an addiction, but the community now sees closer ties between those who are addicted to gambling and those who have other addictive behaviors (such as substance abuse or self-medication)15. The University of Maryland describes “Problem Gambling” as “being unable to resist impulses to gamble, which can lead to severe personal or social consequences”16.
Like those who suffer from other addictions, problem gamblers fulfill many of the classic behaviors. They become restless or irritable when they need to cut down or stop gambling, they need to bet increasingly larger amounts of money, and their gambling interferes with their work, their financial situation, and/or their homelife. Gamblers may “chase” their losses if they’ve had a losing streak, lie about their situation, or rely on others to relieve them from desperate financial straits.
The appeal of gambling is an intriguing one. Alcohol or drugs (including nicotine and caffeine) provide a chemical, experiential buzz. Junk food does something similar, but it directly appeals to our palette. Gambling, though, plays upon a different desire. Gambling appeals to our desire for suspense…or at least a certain type of suspense. No person in their right mind finds the suspense of waiting for biopsy results from the doctor’s office enjoyable. The type of suspense and lack of uncertainty that accompanies a war or a pandemic also provides nothing positive. But people love the type of suspense that comes in the right variety and at the right amount.
A person can take a single dollar and bet it on a horse. If the odds are low (4-1, e.g.) and the horse wins, they’ll collect $4. But now imagine if they bet $1000. Within a few minutes they rake in $3,000 more. The eternal tug-of-war between risk and reward tilted in their favor! The addictive appeal of betting like this could easily drag someone down that path. The person can keep repeating this challenge until they are convinced that “fortune favors the bold,” and that they’ve earned untold amounts of money through the mere effort of risk-taking.
The key though to the optimal betting experience is the “Ulysses Pact.” Don’t allow yourself the types of available resources that would enable you to become addicted. If you’re headed to the track, bring only $10-15. Bet a dollar a race. The wins won’t be major but neither will the losses. Most people would rather accept a thousand small “wins” that steadily accumulate over time than risk a major “loss” in a single instance. Are they playing it safe or playing it smart? Fortune, after all, favors the bold. But it doesn’t usually favor the reckless. If you can bet judiciously and enjoy the experience, then you should, but if you cannot, then “hold your horses!”
If you or someone you love does suffer from problem gambling, the National Council on Problem Gambling operates the National Problem Gambling Helpline. The network consists of 28 contact centers and provides resources and referrals for all 50 states and U.S. territories. Help is available 24/7 and is 100% confidential. They also provide text and chat services. Their number is 1-800-GAMBLER.
 “Horse Racing History”. Horseracing-hq.com. Retrieved April 8, 2014.
 Riess, Steven A. (2011). The sport of kings and the kings of crime: horse racing, politics, and organized crime in New York, 1865-1913. Syracuse University Press
 “History of Horse Racing.” WinningPonies.com. April 7, 2009.
 Burton, Bill. “History of Pari-mutuel Betting”. Archived July 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine About.com. April 7, 2009
 Burton, Bill. “History of Pari-mutuel Betting”. Archived July 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine About.com. April 7, 2009
 Harper’s Magazine, Volume 41, Frederick Lewis Allen, Thomas Bucklin Wells, Harper’s Magazine Company, 1870, pg 97
 Olmsted, Larry (29 May 2013). “Nation’s “Oldest Racetrack” Turns 150 And Plans Summer Of Fun”. Forbes. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
 “The Race on the New Empire Track, Albany, between Mr. Dalton’s Horse of Albany, and Mr. Sheehan’s of New-York.”. The New-York Daily Times, 27 June 1857 1857.
 Blood-Horse Magazine. July 20, 2013, issue p. 14.
 “History of Saratoga Race Course, One of the Oldest Race Tracks in America”. SaratogaRaceTrack.com. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
 Hotaling, Edward (1995). They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 53-54.
 Hotaling, Edward (1995). They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. p. 28.
 Petry, Nancy (September 2006). “Should the Scope of Addictive Behaviors be Broadened to Include Pathological Gambling?”. Addiction. 101 (s1): 152–60.
 Vorvick, Linda; Merrill, Michelle (February 18, 2010). “Pathological Gambling”. University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved April 4, 2012.