Horse racing is one of the oldest organized sports in the world. The premise itself is simple- let’s see if my horse is faster than yours- and all that is technically required is two or more horses, two or more people willing to ride them, and a stretch of the ground over which to run.
However, there are a number of factors- benign and sinister- that can affect the outcome of a race. Bad starts, close finishes, and cheating can all affect the validity and accuracy of race outcomes.
Over the years, certain pieces of technology improved the precision of horse racing results by eliminating or greatly reducing, some of the factors that can muddy those results.
In the earliest days of horse racing, races began with what was called a “walk-up start.” There would be a designated starting point, and horses and riders would be instructed to walk up to that point and stand there until the race was ready to begin. The race starter would observe the horses lining up in their post order, and once they were in line, would signal for the race to begin, usually by waving or dropping a flag, a method usually credited to the British Jockey Club Steward Admiral Henry John Rous.
The idea seems simple, but Thoroughbreds are notoriously nervous and hot-blooded, and generally have difficulty standing in line in close quarters with other horses and people moving around. Some horses would become aggressive if strange horses or people got too close and would attempt to attack them, similar to how Rich Strike attacked his outrider after the Kentucky Derby.
Some horses would panic and turn around or collide into other horses, causing a false start. That meant that the starter’s assistant, positioned several yards away from the official starting point, would drop his flag and any horses that were running would promptly be stopped and turned back, and the race would be attempted to be started again. Some less-than-scrupulous jockeys would intentionally cause false starts in attempts to sabotage rivals or give themselves a better start.
In 1894 in Australia, a new method for starting races debuted. Developed by Alexander Gray, this method involved the horses being lined up to a barrier stretched across the track. The starter would signal the beginning of the race, and the barrier would automatically snap away from the horses. This did cut down on the amount of false starts, but it did not eliminate them, and sometimes horses would endanger themselves by getting tangled in the barrier itself.
In the 1930s in the United States, various models of automatic starting stalls became popular, the most enduring of which was Clay Pruett’s design, which many starting gates today are still modeled after. These devices helped keep horses in place prior to racing and minimized jockey interference, and since being adopted into wide use, have all but eliminated false starts.
Photo Finish Cameras
Early horse races were observed by one or more judges, who would declare race finishes official. This was relatively straightforward when the winning horse was decisively ahead, but close finishes had to be called in the blink of an eye. Often, judges could not distinguish which horse finished in front of the other, and a tie- a “dead heat” in racing terms- would be declared.
In the 1920s, races began to be filmed. This would allow judges to review the finishes, but the cameras were not yet precise enough to capture the exact moment a horse crossed the line. That changed in the late 1930s, when the strip camera was developed. This type of camera was designed to capture only objects in motion, blurring out stationary objects and acting fast enough to capture the precise moment a horse’s nose crosses the finish line.
Dead heats are now a relatively rare occurrence, and they require extensive study of the photo finish. The most prominent modern dead heat occurred in the 2003 Breeder’s Cup Turf, when Johar and High Chapparal crossed the line simultaneously.
Improvements in camera technology also lead to replays being made available for stewards’ inquiries and jockeys’ objections. Prior to the advent of film, jockeys could foul other entries and there would be relatively little evidence.
Modern races are filmed from multiple viewpoints, so that if interference is suspected, stewards can examine the footage with more clarity. This can lead to the disqualification of horses who foul other horses, and can lead to punishments for jockeys who use unsafe race riding practices.
As a result of cutting off another horse in a race at Belmont Park, where Belmont Stakes betting happens, jockey Flavien Prat was suspended and will be forced to miss the Preakness, a race he won aboard Rombauer last year.
In 2019, stewards used multiple angles to review the footage of the Kentucky Derby. They eventually determined that first place finisher Maximum Security had drifted into several other horses’ paths, denying them chances at better finishes. After about twenty minutes of deliberation, Maximum Security became the first horse to be disqualified from winning the Kentucky Derby for interference.
Post-Race Drug Testing
The use of drugs to alter performance has been around as long as horses have been raced, with evidence of doping extending as far back as ancient Roman chariot races. Saliva tests able to detect the most common stimulant drugs started to become available in major racing countries in the early twentieth century, but there was little regulation for the next several decades.
Modern drug tests are performed on the horses’ urine samples given after a race. They can detect the presence of illegal drugs, but they can also detect illegal amounts of drugs that may be legal during a horse’s training but are not permitted to be administered before races. In 2021, Kentucky Derby first place finisher Medina Spirit was found to have too much betamethasone in his system when the drug is not permitted to be used sooner than fourteen days prior to a race. He was subsequently disqualified.