The difficult art of predicting the winner of a horse race is called handicapping. The process of handicapping involves evaluating the demonstrated abilities of a horse in light of the conditions under which it will be racing on a given day. To gauge these abilities, handicappers use past performances, detailed published records of preceding races. These past performances indicate the horse’s speed, its ability to win, and whether the performances tend to be getting better or worse. The conditions under which the horse will be racing include the quality of the competition in the race, the distance of the race, the type of racing surface (dirt or grass), and the current state of that surface (fast, sloppy, and so on). The term handicapping also has a related but somewhat different meaning: in some races, varying amounts of extra weight are assigned to horses based on age or ability in order to equalize the field.
The racing of horses in harness dates back to ancient times, but the sport virtually disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire. The history of modern HARNESS RACING begins in America, where racing trotting horses over country roads became a popular rural pastime by the end of the 18th century. The first tracks for harness racing were constructed in the first decade of the 19th century, and by 1825 harness racing was an institution at hundreds of country fairs across the nation.
With the popularity of harness racing came the development of the STANDARDBRED, a horse bred specifically for racing under harness. The founding sire of all Standardbreds is an English Thoroughbred named Messenger, who was brought to the United States in 1788. Messenger was bred to both pure Thoroughbred and mixed breed mares, and his descendants were rebred until these matings produced a new breed with endurance, temperament, and anatomy uniquely suited to racing under harness. This new breed was called the Standardbred, after the practice of basing all harness-racing speed records on the “standard” distance of one mile.
Harness racing reached the early zenith of its popularity in the late 1800s, with the establishment of a Grand Circuit of major fairs. The sport sharply declined in popularity after 1900, as the automobile replaced the horse and the United States became more urbanized. In 1940, however, Roosevelt Raceway in New York introduced harness racing under the lights with pari-mutuel betting. This innovation sparked a rebirth of harness racing, and today its number of tracks and number of annual races exceed those of Thoroughbred racing. The sport is also popular in most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Steeplechase, Hurdle, and Point-To-Point Racing
Steeplechases are races over a 2- to 4-mi (3.2- to 6.4-km) course that includes such obstacles as brush fences, stone walls, timber rails, and water jumps. The sport developed from the English and Irish pastime of fox hunting, when hunters would test the speed of their mounts during the cross-country chase. Organized steeplechase racing began about 1830, and has continued to be a popular sport in England to this day. The most famous steeplechase race in the world is England’s Grand National, held every year since 1839 at Aintree. Steeplechase racing is occasionally conducted at several U.S. Thoroughbred racetracks. The most significant race is the U.S. Grand National Steeplechase held yearly at Belmont Park.
Hurdling is a form of steeplechasing that is less physically demanding of the horses. The obstacles consist solely of hurdles 1 to 2 ft (0.3 to 0.6 m) lower than the obstacles on a steeplechase course, and the races are normally less than 2 mi in length. Hurdling races are often used for training horses that will later compete in steeplechases. Horses chosen for steeplechase training are usually Thoroughbreds selected for their endurance, calm temperament, and larger-than-normal size.
Point-to-point races are held for amateurs on about 120 courses throughout the British Isles. Originally run straight across country (hence the name), these races are now conducted on oval tracks with built-in fences, often on farmland.