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While Racing NSW has announced it will direct a portion of prizemoney to the welfare of horses when their racing career is over, the national industry continues to kill thousands of unwanted animals each year. By Susan Chenery.

NSW’s tentative steps towards racehorse rehabilitation

A race in Wangaratta, Victoria.
Credit: DAVID THORPE / RACING PHOTOS VIA GETTY IMAGES

A day at the races, seemingly a rite of spring in certain social circles. And so the spring carnival commences amid a fever of fashion, champagne and other commercial interests.

The horses dance in the mounting yard; highly strung elite athletes, sleek and muscular. Across the country Australians bet $15 billion a year on just how fast thoroughbred horses can go.

Australia is second only to the United States when it comes to breeding thoroughbreds. Currently about 13,000 foals are bred annually, only two-thirds of which will make it to the track. About 30,000 horses race every year. They are racing at two years old, before their bones are properly formed, and inevitably some break down, become injured, or are judged too slow. Ward Young, of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, says, “Studies have found that 89 per cent of racehorses have stomach ulcers from stress.” A racehorse can be past its prime before it is even fully grown.

When they are no longer competitive, they become what the industry calls “wastage”.

“Once they are no longer an earning proposition, they start costing money,” says Young. “That means they need to offload the horses as soon as possible.”

That can mean a trip to the knackery or to the sale yards where, if they are not rescued or bought as riding horses, they will go to the kill pens where they might be bought for a couple of hundred dollars by “the doggers”, to be sold as dog meat. Stablehands speak of horses “disappearing” overnight from training complexes. Although racing authorities deny it, Young believes that “the racing industry is slaughtering thousands annually to make way for younger, faster horses”.

“There have been horses bought from the meat pens who, when their brands have been traced, have been found to have earned hundreds and thousands of dollars in their racing careers,” says Rebecca Atkins, president of Quest Equine Welfare, a horse rescue operation.

This writer has seen young branded thoroughbred horses at the Laverton Knackery in Victoria standing under a crudely painted sign that read “Fresh Pet Meat”.

Says Young, “Every horse that comes into this world has a life expectancy of approximately 30 years and the racing industry owes a duty of care to that animal knowing that it might not be successful in racing.”

The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses has long advocated that the Australian thoroughbred racing should give 1 per cent of the $15 billion wagered to the welfare of their animal charges when they leave the track.

In 2012 the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was established in the US, initially funded by the Breeders’ Cup, the Jockey Club and the racetracks. Automatic mandatory contributions in the form of a “small fair share from anyone who profits in any way from the life of a thoroughbred” are taken from owners, trainers, breeders, racetracks and jockeys. These funds are granted to stringently regulated facilities for care, retraining and rehoming of racehorses.

In August of this year a global forum to discuss strategies for retraining former racehorses was formed in Britain. The International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR) issued a statement stating its intention to “act as an assembly for discussion, recognising geographical and industry differences, to help take racing aftercare to a new level all around the world”.

“Promoting equine welfare both during and after a horse’s racing career is vital in ensuring the public’s confidence in the sport is maintained and is integral to the future health of horseracing,” Jim Gagliano, president of the US Jockey Club, said at the forum’s announcement.

These measures seek to address the whiff of cruelty with which racing is tainted, as the industry is losing public support. In the wake of bad publicity, “the shine has been taken off racing. There has been about a 23 per cent drop in figures for the Melbourne spring [racing] carnival,” says Elio Celotto, of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses. Four champion horses have died or been euthanased shortly after racing in the past three Melbourne Cups.

In an email to The Saturday Paper Peter McGauran, chief executive of the Australian Racing Board wrote: “State Principal Racing Authorities (PRAs) are responsible for equine health and welfare. All have programs and initiatives for the rehoming of retired racehorses as well as regulatory vets safeguarding horse welfare.”

In a sign the industry might be moving to catch up with the US in post-racing animal welfare, last month Racing New South Wales announced a new program. Its chief executive, Peter V’Landys, said that 1 per cent of prizemoney in the state – about $2 million – will go towards the care of former racehorses and those that never made it to the track.

“It is a big start,” Ward Young says. “They are starting to say the right things.”

Nonetheless, “it is not what we asked for,” he says. “We wanted 1 per cent of the betting turnover, which is $150 million. This is not going to go very far. I think they underestimated how big the problem is so they have kind of made these statements thinking that this might happen to 5 or 10 per cent of horses, not 50 per cent of horses or thereabouts.

“A big part of this is rehabilitating horses from the damage that has been done to them in racing, which is quite time and resource intensive. We hope it is a starting point not an end point.”

V’Landys says that if $2 million is not enough, “we will put more into it. We have already put in a million of our own funds. We want to give all horses a quality of life.”

“For me it is for love of the horses,” he says. “The horse is a magnificent creature and we should be looking after it.”

Looking after horses is a lot of work, requiring much space and costing not insignificant money. Rebecca Atkins says, “There really aren’t the homes for the numbers of horses that have been sacked, which is what they call those no longer worth racing.”

But V’Landys is adamant. Racing NSW will reach out to riding schools, pony clubs and agricultural societies. “We are also doing our own programs, dealing with the corrective services department to retrain horses and placing them in jails. So there are a lot of programs that we will be doing. We are making sure that every horse that is bred and domiciled in NSW is found a home.”

Until recently the movement of horses changing hands has neither been recorded nor regulated. A trainer might think a horse has gone to a good home but an animal that is trained to go very fast on a racetrack can easily end up with an inexperienced owner who finds it an unsuitable steed. “A week or two later it ends up at the sale yards,” says Celotto.

Under the new guidelines in NSW, it will be much harder to dump an unwanted horse in the state.

Says V’Landys: “If you breed a horse, there is a new rule that you must tell us within 30 days and then from then on you must tell us where that horse is at all times. If they then decide that they don’t want the horse anymore, we will be sending an officer out to the property to assess that horse. Then we will find it a home.”

McGauran writes: “There is no national plan to introduce a 1 per cent allocation across the board, though the experience in NSW will be closely watched for what can be learned. Some PRAs may believe they are already meeting their welfare obligations under existing funding and programs.”

In Queensland the Hong Kong-owned Aquis stud farm has in the past months begun a retraining program for racehorses sent back from Hong Kong to retire. Magnificent thoroughbreds are starting to be seen at local jumping shows leaving a lot of air over the fences.

“A lot of people just assume that we are heartless and just discard them, but we definitely try not to,” says Kacy Fogden, racehorse manager of Aquis Farm. “It is nice for them to have second chances. It is pretty sad for the industry to assume that if they are no good at racing, they shouldn’t be here.”

Ward Young says without significantly funded state facilities for the rehabilitation of racehorses, small ventures can only take in a fraction of the horses coming off the track.

Still, he is cautiously optimistic in the wake of the NSW initiative. “They used to think that they don’t have a responsibility for these horses after racing or before racing, whereas now they do,” he says. “This really puts the rest of Australia on notice. We need to celebrate this example but also inform people that in the majority of the rest of Australia the status quo is still the same. The horses are breaking down on the racetrack. They are being put over jumps. As we speak, horses are being shot in the head and killed for dog meat around Australia. It just so happens that less of that will happen in NSW.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "After the horse has bolted". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.