How Horse Race Coverage Affects Elections

How Horse Race Coverage Affects Elections

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports on Earth. Over the centuries, it has transformed from a primitive contest of speed between two horses into an elaborate spectacle featuring huge fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money. But it has never lost its essential feature: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner.

When journalists cover elections primarily by reporting who’s winning and losing—what researchers call “horse race coverage”—voters, candidates and the news industry suffer, according to a growing body of research. In a new study, two academics examined print news coverage of the 2004 and 2006 U.S. presidential races. They found that the stories framed the election as a competition between two opponents, rather than a debate over policy issues that would improve the lives of Americans.

The race started cleanly, with War of Will on the inside track hugging the rail, and Mongolian Groom, a chestnut colt ridden by Abel Cedillo, just behind him. As they rounded the clubhouse turn, you could see that War of Will was beginning to tire, and that McKinzie, a small-framed bay ridden by jockey David Proctor, was moving up on him.

At that moment, it would have been awful to be in the middle of this pack. Horses are prey animals, and the middle of a pack is an unpleasant place to be: kicking dirt in your face, getting kicked in the head by other horses’ heels, with nothing to do but stare at horse butts. Instead, most horses prefer to run toward the front of the field.

That day, a large number of those horses were thirsty. All the thoroughbreds in the race had received a dose of Lasix that morning, which is noted on the racing form by a boldface “L.” Lasix is given to prevent pulmonary bleeding that hard running can cause, and its diuretic function causes them to unload epic amounts of urine—twenty or thirty pounds worth, at least when they’re in top condition.

Aside from its natural appeal, horse racing also draws people because it’s cheap. You can wager a few bucks on any given race, and you’ll often come away with more than your initial investment. That’s not to say that the sport hasn’t suffered a decline in popularity. Many would-be fans are turned off by scandals involving safety and doping. And younger people have a lot of other things to do with their time.

Despite these challenges, the business of horse racing remains a viable enterprise in many places. But it’s hard to know if its popularity will ever return to where it was, even with better rules and more effective doping controls. The future of the sport is unclear, but there are signs that it’s regaining ground, particularly among women. If the sport can figure out how to reach a younger audience, it may have a chance to survive. If not, it will likely continue its steady decline.