My pirates need to maximize profit from their illegal horse racing activities

But the horses are not normal, they are machines. You can ride on top with difficulty, and it may slow them down. So gamblers want excitement and lots of opportunities to bet. What race format suits these machines and the greedy gamblers best?

Environment: A volcanic waste world with average temperatures over 800°F temperatures inhabited by British settlers 200 years ago has a pirate enclave engaged in horse racing (and playing the numbers, obviously). A particular genius has figured out reliable and durable articulating joints for knees, ankles, shoulders, etc., so they make steam-turbine powered gyro-stabilized horses to quickly cover the rugged terrain. They have no rubber that can survive the surface, so legs are the best mobility option. Competition for best design improvements have led to horse racing. Horse designers and inventors all try their improvement ideas at the track. People wear environment suits outside.

Fuel and engines

The fuel for the society, and the horses, is called Negatite. This derives from an ore that is crushed down into a fine powder and processed with nitric acid to form the oily negatite fluid. When negatite is exposed to the outside air, it undergoes an extreme endothermic reaction, cooling down quickly to form a crystalline gell. Steam engines pump negatite into cooling tubes in the turbine condensers, drawing steam through the blades and condensing it back to water. Environment suits use negatite to cool their occupants and to run oxygen generators in the suits.

This all is important because unlike steam engines on cool worlds, the heat is the ambient atmosphere. Instead of having a steam generator, water is run through pipes along the ribcage of the horse. This brings the water to a boil to drive the turbine. All engines in the world gain heat with external piping, in fact. Turbines link to a pump which pressurizes the hydraulic tanks, and hydraulic fluid operates all mechanical apparatuses.

The horse design

The horse is well articulated in shoulders, haunches, and the neck. Strong pins in the hooves are linked to plungers which close a small vacuum line as the hoof meets a solid surface. This signals a valve to put pressure on that leg, in the correct proportion determined by the 6-axis gyroscopes. Legs get the correct pressure to keep them running level, or, in the case that the horse needs to turn; slightly off-level. All this works together so the horse can run over fairly rough terrain without slowing down. Statistics are this:

  • History

    - Vast expanses of rugged volcanic plains and craggy desert separate ore deposits where cities formed. Before the first railroad went up, wheel bearings were impractical as they were too difficult to seal and keep lubricated in the intense heat. An articulated joint with no more than 20° range of motion became the most durable way to attach any articulated machinery extensions or limbs without exposing them to the elements, because the entire joint can be shielded and kept pressurized to prevent any sand or debris from entering. No suitable material existed to form durable axle dust covers at these temperatures. Thus a legged transportation made the most sense. The design needed a long stride to reduce the number of steps taken, and thereby reducing the wear on the joints. A tall stature allowed the vehicle to cross narrow crags or other obstacles, and the vehicle also should not be limited to staying on the ground. A vehicle which could jump over small boulders and evorsions if needed made transits much quicker, where wheels lacked the articulation to climb anything larger than half their height, and easily get stuck in holes. With precision gyroscopes perfected by brilliant machinists, the form of a horse made the most sense.
  • Specifications:

    Horses have been developed for many different applications, from heavy load hauling of ore wagons along makeshift mining roads, to rapid messenger transport "roadster" models with lighter frames and fast terrain response. Some models can be ridden on in an environment suit but straddling any horse powerful enough to carry a load would be a stretch because they are too wide for most to get legs around. Desert sleds on runners are common to be hauled behind a horse on an extended trip, where extra negatite can be carried, and any cargo the trip may need. Passenger dessert sleighs are also common, which can be fully enclosed and climate controlled. Once at a gallop, a horse can run very efficiently, as legs and stride are harmonically tuned to a specific speed. Some horses have adjustments for variable resonant speed, and these are generally very expensive and prone to problems.
  • Racing:

    Legitimate horse racing evolved to pit designs against each other, generally placing them in the natural environment where they would be operated. Winning promotes the best engineering and designs, and results in a great demand for your horses. Those courses generally run two hours with several laps around a natural course. Betting also brings in prize money for the winners, and promotes the sport. The gambling aspect of horse racing appeals to clans of outlaws living in the badlands in hobbled-together villages, where a small ore deposit may have been found. The promote their illegal events through an underground network, and high-profile people often secretly sponsor racers to compete in these events for a chance at large gains. Unlike the regulated sport, these races are "win at all costs," with the promise of some radical new advancement which they can patent and exploit to the public.
  • This question is asking help with the format for $\underline{ \textbf{illegitimate}}$, unregulated horse racing

The problem

There are many challenges to these horses. The horse's ribcage needs access to lots of heat. The horse doesn't have a large onboard fuel capacity due to all the complex machinery. Whoever is controlling the horse should have a good vantage point as the horse can't see, it goes or stops according to the commands of the operator. Many cities run races, but the particular race in this question is operated illegally at the pirate enclave, and is inherently quite dangerous, but by the same token, quite profitable if you win.


What format of horse racing would bring the best competitor opportunity, spectator excitement, and allow the maximum "house" profitability?

Base them on existing terrestrial race formats, such as harness, chariot, flat, endurance, etc. The track obviously wants a race that can guarantee a house win, or rig without too much trouble when needed. It's about control, and creating the illusion of high-stakes sports gambling.

  • $\begingroup$ You edited the question to answer your own question: "Those courses generally run two hours with several laps around a natural course. " There's your format. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Daron That's how the regulated races have been run. That's not what the question asks. These pirate events are an unregulated format designed for the stated purposes, not for technological advancement. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet Ah gotcha. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ Hey what are your favourite Steampunk works to read, watch or play? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ My favourite Steampunk is Wild Wild West. Weeka-weeka-weeka Wild Wild West. But that is over 20 year old now. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 13:58

4 Answers 4


I say go for tried and tested successes among hardcore gamblers.

So: Chariots. The Romans gambled on them for centuries, they're amenable to novelty races (like battles), they're amenable to rigging, and there's umpteen variations on them. They can be adapted from commercial carts too which allows any desperate young man to try his luck in a low grade race. It allows two or more characters to share a chariot which may be useful for plot or character development.

Detailed Roman chariot racing conventions are still well known and can be lifted wholesale while still seeming inventive to your readers. You could even lift some of their vocabulary / racing jargon, throw in a few references to Hades or Tartarus or Avernus or Styx and there's a coherent hell-racing 'feel' created with minimal work. Classics fans would realise that you're lifting material from the Romans but wouldn't consider it stealing and would actually like it. See: https://www.quia.com/jg/274234list.html, http://vroma.org/vromans/bmcmanus/circus.html Wikipedia's chariot racing article

Some other ideas: You could have legged chariots that are powered by hydraulics supplied by the horse (with a vulnerable, exposed supply line and coupling which makes for easy plot devices).

Either that or stick jaws on the 'horses' and replicate greyhound racing, but with huge robotic greyhounds. Make it a chase. Think of a spectrum with simple robotic rabbit running in a line at one end and Harry Potter's Golden Snitch at the other and pick a 'rabbit' with the predictability you desire.

If we're going for maximum fun, put the tracks indoors in an iron sphere and give the horses magnetic hooves, to create a 360 degree, three axis viewing spectacular. Jockey stuffs up? He falls 50m to his death. Also, as it's indoors, it's more private. A big bowl is less spectacular but provides some of the spectacle and is more practical.


Straight Line (Maybe a Loop)

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On Earth, most commercial horse racing happens on a straight track without obstacles. Sometimes the track is a loop to save space. Most races take a few minutes or less. Long enough to be exciting , short enough to fit dozens of races (opportunities to make a bet) each day. The short track also makes it easier to maintain and film the races.

Some fancier places have movable jumps for the horses to jump over. Some VERY Fancy places have unmoveable jumps like hedges and pools of water for the horses to jump over.

The difference in your world is that every part of the race is more expensive to host. The horses are more expensive. The horse food (fuel) is more expensive. Going outside is dangerous (and more expensive).

This will encourage simplicity in the races. Like commercial meat horse races, they will be straight lines or loops and only last a few minutes. The interesting question is can you possibly make the races any simpler than that?

Perhaps the ground is slightly bumpy to add the excitement of a horse falling over during the race, and make the track easier to maintain.

Or perhaps the track is perfectly flat, like a racing car track, and the different horses are sponsored by motoring companies?

Note: Rigging these races is easier than with meat horses, since you can secretly implant a subroutine inside each horse that tells it to win or lose the race. You can do this without the jockeys knowing. You cannot do this with real horses.

  • $\begingroup$ I originally went this way - flat-racing (circuit route) because it seemed easy enough. But then I realized that a jockey on top of the horse has to put his legs over the heating coils, and this will reduce the hot air reaching the coils. The jockeys would be taking power away from the horse's engines. And now I don't know where the best place to put the jockey would be to get the maximum power. So this question came up. Is flat racing best? Or maybe harness racing? I needed something that makes sense but also can be sabotaged easily, because that happens in the plot to create a crisis. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet The question of course length and shape is separate from the question of where to put the jockey. I have only tried to answer the former. I didn't realize you were asking about the latter. When you say "horse racing" I think of jockeys sitting on horses. I didn't even consider you might be asking about other ways to attach a man to a horse. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, sorry, the term "format" may not be commonly understood outside horse racing. Does it need to be worded better? Also, there are no computers. This is all steampunk tech. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet Maybe some of the jockeys have chopped off their legs so they can plug their stumps into a specially designed "harness" that links the horse's nervous system with their own. The rest of the time they wear prosthetics. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ LOL! How very very piratey indeed! "Peg leg? Pshaw! I can have a horse upon me arse!" $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 19:32

You want racing robots and you want the races to be illegal. This answer is inspired by a somewhat short-lived post-Soviet TV show from the 90s, where rally drivers and stuntmen from film industry showed off.

Survival races

It's your normal race (loop or whatever), but the robotic race participants are not only not forbidden, but encouraged to attack each other. No weapons, but a lot of bumping, conspiring participants, and (more or less) spectacular wrecks. A crash is not a stop of the race, nor a reason not to continue. Who comes first, wins, sure. But there might be a consolation price for a most spectacular crash or best morale.

Make them fully robotic, with human drivers (but mostly safe, because they know, what they are doing), or full gladiator fight, depending on how bloodthirsty the audience is.

The whole thing is illegal either because humans are involved (duh), or because even robots fighting in a battle royal are not the best thing from the moral standpoint. Also, because of gambling, but that holds for any kind of races.


1)As for the position of the jockey- why don't give them a capsule IN the horse. Right where a normal horses head would be sits the jockey.

Otherwise this could be a good question for the engineers - how to reduce energy loss? Easies thing would be an enlarged surface, so maybe have people sit on high saddles that keep the jockey's legs off the heating coils but store heat themselves? Or even have the jockeys' suits heat up from the outside (with protective material on the inside).

  1. The challenge of making the horse as hot as possible also gives room to risky technology that would be forbidden in a legal race. Similar to tuned cars security measures are disabled or removed, rocket start style Negatide explosions are utilized to give the horse an extra kick, materials are as light and thin as possible, making horses less stable and more prone to accidents with severe consequences.

  2. There are very little rules, risky and unfair maneuvers are the standard. The biggest heroes are the one pulling the boldest and relentless stunts. There are bets not only on who wins but also on who crashes first and on how many jockeys are dead in the end.

  3. a straight course is not quite risky and exciting enough. I'd also not go for long races of over two hours but rather short course elimination races-who wins the race goes to the next round. Races take about ten minutes and are very fast. From the prelims, the fastest racers go to semi-finals and then there is the big final.

  4. For the spectators it would be coolest to see the racers the whole time, so a velodrome type of arena would be cool (it would also make more sense for the multiple round system and add some sensation due to limited space - more action going on, more crashes going on). I'm thinking if it would work with natural (or natural looking) obstacles - rocks, erupting mini vulcanos, attacking wild animals- it's a wild ride video game style, you never know what will happen next, not only does the favorite of the race have to deal with his biggest rival trying to push him off the track, now they also get attacked by a bunch of robo-bats.

  5. the obstacles aren't all so random. Sometimes the mini vulcano will errupt just right to eliminate one of the competitors and if you look really close the robo-bats will only ever damage jockey A's horse, but jockey B they finish. Along with technical manipulation of the horses that's a great way to have the most exciting and unpredictable race that's actually nothing but a farce.

  6. the only issue with the velodrome of course is that it's hard to keep secret, races being illegal. On the other hand most commercial, spectator friendly races would have to be. But maybe there is some big natural crate that's sort of secluded and not very well known that can be turned into that boiling pot style racing arena.


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