The Italian Horse Race
Horses race each other on a two-lane, flat track while humans cheer them on from the grandstand. The horses are fast and graceful, their huge strides hypnotically rhythmic. Their jockeys use whips to encourage them, although some of the riders also use them to lash their opponents in a minute and a half of ruthless battle. Thousands of people watch the action, and when the horses cross the line they are greeted with thunderous applause.
In the days leading up to a horse race, Siena’s central square, the Piazza del Campo, is transformed beyond recognition. A gritty mixture of clay and earth is packed onto the golden cobbles, creating a compact and level surface for the horses to race on, while protecting the ancient tiles underneath. Bleachers are assembled for the crowds of spectators, and barriers erected to mark the perimeter of the race course. The lively restaurants and cafes are emptied, making room for the thousands of devoted racing fans.
Unlike many sports, horse racing is not played by professional athletes. Most people who play it are not even members of the equestrian club. Instead, most people place bets and attend the races to watch the action. In addition to betting, the sport has a number of rules to ensure fairness and safety for everyone involved.
Some of these rules were enacted by law, while others were created by tradition and common sense. The earliest races were match races between two or three horses, with the owners providing the purse and taking bets. The agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties who came to be known as keepers of the match books. Later, as horse breeds were refined and raced more frequently, the match book became a calendar of all the major events.
The first organized racing in North America was established by Colonel Richard Nicolls when he took over New Amsterdam (now New York City) from the British in 1664. He mapped out a 2-mile (3.21-km) course on the plains of Long Island and offered silver cups to the best horses in spring and fall. Until the Civil War, most American Thoroughbreds were bred for stamina rather than speed. A quick, compact horse named Janus was imported from England and is credited with being the foundation sire of the American breed.
In North America, horse races are graded based on the quality of previous winners and the horse’s pedigree. A horse’s pedigree is the record of its parents and is one of the requirements for a horse to be allowed to compete in a particular race. The pedigree is the most important factor in determining the horse’s chances of winning. There are also bets that are placed on a horse to finish either first, second or third, known as placing bets. Betting to win is the safest bet, while betting’show’ is more risky since the payoff for a win bet is typically lower than the top three places.