I’d hate to be a nag…

As published by The Footy Almanac, 5 November 2014

The distant rumble of thundering thoroughbreds can be heard as they round the final turn.

Closer to home the noise escalates to an ominous din, there’s no escaping it now.  Something’s gotta give.

The growing rumblings over the Australian horse racing industry have similarly reached a crescendo.  More articles are being written, talkback radio is abuzz and protests are gaining momentum.  As the preeminent lobby group for stronger regulations to significantly reduce the suffering and deaths of race horses and would-be racers, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses has provided the media a go-to mouthpiece for the emerging disenchantment.

Despite what racing supporters would have you believe, they do not seek to dismantle an industry that generates 64,000 full-time jobs and over a billion dollars in state and federal taxes per year.  Even this ‘radical fringe group’, as they’ve been labelled, know that is totally unrealistic.  What’s more, Australian thoroughbred racing claims to spend approximately $30bn pa leading to a direct economic impact of $41bn. According to the VRC, the Spring Carnival alone generates an economic stimulus in excess of $360m to Victoria and $750m nationally.

What the CPR is campaigning for are measures such as banning underdeveloped 2 year olds from racing, whips that push horses beyond their natural capacity and a greater effort to reduce ‘wastage’ – that is the dirty little secret of over-breeding and the inability to sustain the hotly debated but not insignificant quantity of redundant horses that wind up at the knackery.

Following the death of Verema in last year’s Cup, the timing of Admire Rakti and Araldo’s high profile demise was the VRC’s worst nightmare.  Whereas CPR spokesman Ward Young at least puts forward constructive ideas to improve racehorse welfare, it would appear many of the racing fraternity find it easier to simply dismiss and denounce the so-called ‘uninformed f-wits’ apparently committed to ruining their fun.  The road toll, hypocritical meat eating and not caring about jockeys who’ve died are just a few bizarre analogies and accusations made to discredit the ‘ambulance chasing do-gooders’ (myself included).

I mean, how dare anyone call into question the racing industry’s ethics when it boasts such a fine track record?

The oft cited love of the magnificent beasts, the lengths to which the horses are cared for and the ‘want to race’ line are typical cases for the defence.

And undoubtedly most stable hands, jockeys, trainers, owners etc do love their horses, and there’s no doubt active nags are treated superbly (besides whipping and the actual racing bit that saw 129 horses in Australia lose their lives in the space of a year).  Of course they are, as any other high priced investment would be.

Curiously, one of the common defensive positions of the pro-racing fraternity is to speak of their distress over tragic incidents – as if the perception they don’t care is their greatest PR hurdle.  I for one don’t doubt the tears are genuine, but it doesn’t mitigate certain inherent industry behaviors and outcomes that demand scrutiny and change.

A University of Melbourne study found race exertion sees half of race horses bleed in the windpipe and 90% bleed deeper in the lungs. High-concentrate grain diets (rather than extended grazing) can lead to gastric ulcers. A study of racehorses at Randwick found 89% had stomach ulcers, and many of the horses had deep, bleeding ulcers within eight weeks of training commencement.

Then there are the more obvious muscular-skeletal racing injuries, such as torn ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints and occasional fractured bones. To that end jumps racing in its present form is surely living on borrowed time.

As for the wastage issue, retired and failed horses are re-homed for equestrian purposes, police duty or stud but how many is a matter the VRC itself admits requires better tracking.  There is disturbing research that indicates a large quota are destined for the plate or dog bowl.   One Australian export abattoir study found half the exported meat carried burnt-in brands indicating a racing origin, and a further portion fitted the breed specifications of would-be racers.  In the words of Peter McGauran, CEO of the Australian Racing Board, the fate of ex-racehorses is “still an unresolved issue”.

Football and other entertainments have accepted that what passed muster in 1984 is not fair cop in 2014.  When the hysteria and the emotions settle after the most recent tragedies, the questions to ask the thoroughbred industry must surely be whether it is prepared to make some hard decisions and whether it does redirect an acceptable percentage of its vast income to seriously address its ills.

This piece won’t sit easily with most racing enthusiasts.  Though it is clear which side of the railing I stand, hopefully the topic’s been addressed here with a level of balance and pragmatism.  Indeed, an independent inquiry may be what’s required to kick-start proper, meaningful discussions and action.  Whilst the facts are still being disputed, the growing rumble of discontent cannot be ignored by a sport wanting to protect its reputation and future.  Geoffrey Edelsten and Gabi Grecko certainly won’t save it.

Something’s gotta give.

Recommended reading:

They shoot horses, don’t they?, Good Weekend magazine, September 2013

Cup Week leaves racing looking like a prize-winning ass; The Conversation, 7 November 2014


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Leila says:

    Great article. Yes, it’s definitely time for the racing industry to get its house properly in order with regard to the welfare of the animals that make it all possible.
    There’s so many actions that could be taken to improve the lot of the horses, while still allowing
    the industry to continue on a more humane level:
    1) breed far fewer foals – fewer foals should mean less “wastage”
    2) no jumps racing for obvious reasons
    3) no 2 year old racing – they are still babies at this age in terms of their skeletal growth and maturity
    4) increase the number of vets on duty at race meetings – I was astonished to read that there were only 5 vets in attendance at Flemington on Cup day and that the chief vet could not attend to Admire Rakti, because he was already involved with treating Araldo. The biggest race of the year and for all those valuable horses in attendance, there were only 5 vets?
    5) water rock hard tracks to make the going a little less jarring on horses’ legs. They did it to assist the wonderful Makybe Diva, so why can’t they do it all the time.
    6) make it mandatory for thoroughbreds to be kept in yards (with shelters) of a minimum size, allowing for some relief of boredom for the horses, who spend most of their racing days in small, confined stables
    7) change feeding practices so that grains do not form such a high percentage of their nutritional intake, but still provide the essential elements for an equine athlete
    8) ban whips – did anyone notice how Damien Oliver won several close finishes on Victoria Derby Day, by putting away the whip and riding vigorously with hands and heels to the post? If it’s true that the love of running is inherent in thoroughbreds, then they will respond to the physical urgings of their riders, simply because they want to. Even ordinary hacks will do this.
    9) Set up “retirement villages” for those horses who do not move onto other careers after racing. The racing industry can afford this and it would provide employment to many who love horses.

    These are just a few things that could be done if the racing fraternity was serious about the ensuring the best quality of life for the animals that are the backbone of the industry. Just a small percentage of every stakes payout and/or a betting levy, would provide adequate funding to keep the whole show on the road, while ensuring improved welfare for the horses.

    “As with football and other entertainments, what may have been acceptable in 1984 will not pass muster in 2014”. Most certainly – it’s time for a revolution of the horse racing industry.


    1. JD says:

      Too much common sense there Leila. Unfortunately it would seem any criticism of how horses are treated elicits extreme defensiveness.

      Until the industry is willing to properly engage in meaningful discussions and independent research we will only continue to see it push out paid ‘expert’ opinions and trainers’ emotive ‘we cried for our champion horse’ stories.


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