What Is a Horse Race?

A race for horses, usually ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies and their drivers, over an oval track with organized betting. Also used figuratively to refer to a close and closely contested contest, as in politics.

In a horse race, the goal is to get a horse to run faster than its competitors. This requires it to be fit and fast, which can mean consuming a lot of food and exercise and having to train to achieve its peak physical condition. It also means navigating a complex system of rules and regulations that ensure its safety, particularly in the case of an accident or injury.

To do so, the horse must learn to run in a circle and channel its energy effectively through each stride. It also must master a difficult technique known as changing leads. Normally, the horse will run on its right lead in straightaways and on its left lead around each turn. The horse will tire more quickly if it stays on the same lead for too long, so changing on cue is crucial.

It is not easy to understand how a horse feels when its legs pound against the hard dirt and it struggles to maintain a rhythm with its rivals. Photos of the horses as they extend full strides toward the finish line often show their faces twisted in pain and their mouths wide open. Despite the advances in medical care, it is not clear why horses continue to be willing to subject themselves to these conditions.

While horses can be conditioned to feel better about racing, they cannot negotiate contracts or walk away from the sport, as human athletes can. That fact alone is a reflection of the questionable ethics that taint horse racing, even as it works to portray itself as just another sport.

The race for the presidency has begun to resemble a horse race in recent weeks, with journalists focusing heavily on polls showing which candidate is leading and losing—what’s been referred to as “horse race journalism.” A growing body of research shows that this type of reporting hurts voters, candidates and the news industry itself. Our updated collection of research outlines the problem, and suggests solutions. We’ve included studies on third-party political candidates, probabilistic forecasting and TV news coverage of the election. We also examine the consequences of a relatively new form of horse race journalism: data analytics that use opinion polling to predict winners and losers. The results of this kind of analysis can give novel or unusual candidates an edge, and hurt third-party and independent voters by obscuring the true range of possible outcomes. It may also encourage pundits to conflate the race’s results with its popular appeal, which could mislead voters and confuse the public. This article was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated as of Oct 23, 2023.