Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world, and it evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money. But the sport’s basic concept has remained unchanged: The horse that finishes first wins.
In the earliest days, races were match races between two or at most three horses, and bets could be placed on each race by writing down a horse’s odds. An owner who backed out of a race forfeited half the purse, or later all of it. These agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book. One such at Newmarket in England, John Cheny, published An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729). Other match books were kept at other racing centres, and in 1773 James Weatherby founded a series of annual compilations called the Racing Calendar.
The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit in the wake of last year’s Kentucky Derby sparked a reckoning in America about the ethical and moral integrity of horse racing. Both of the champions died as a result of the exorbitant physical stress of racing and training, and their premature deaths have brought to light some disturbing issues about how horses are treated at top levels of the sport.
While the sport faces many challenges, some of which are outside of its control, it is also true that horse racing has much to offer fans. The sport has a rich tradition of culture and history, as well as a passionate, devoted base of fans who love seeing their favorite athletes perform to the best of their abilities.
But those fans have also been turned off by a series of scandals about the treatment of horses, and the sport’s overall image is suffering. It’s hard to know whether horse racing can overcome its problems and return to its glory days.
Fortunately, the latest research suggests that it may be possible to improve the quality of horse race reporting. Researchers have started experimenting with what is called probabilistic forecasting, which allows news outlets to use complex statistical models to predict the odds of a horse winning a particular race. The results of this research suggest that this kind of coverage is more likely to be accurate than the kinds of hysterical polling and speculation about political candidates’ chances of winning that dominate most horse race reporting.
The authors of this study found that corporate-owned newspapers were more likely to report on horse race coverage, and that it was most prevalent in close races and during the weeks leading up to Election Day. They also found that journalists tended to focus on the most promising horse race, rather than on all the horses running in an election, and that they were more likely to focus on the most compelling personal story of a horse.