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For all the heartwarming stories to come out of Tuesday’s historic Melbourne Cup, a cloud of impurity hovers over the ‘closed culture’ of the racing industry. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Michelle Payne inspires but fog of sleaze surrounds horseracing

Prince Of Penzance’s jockey Michelle Payne with her strapper brother Stevie Payne after winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup.
Credit: AP

There were more nerves than usual on Melbourne Cup eve 2015. Animal rights activists were coalescing, a thick strip of the Flemington track was rated inferior, and recently the home of Racing Victoria’s chief steward was shot up by thugs. This had been a year when the infamously enclosed racing industry was undermined by rolling allegations of doping, race fixing and money laundering – while a Four Corners investigation revealed systemic barbarism within the sister industry of greyhound racing. Above the bright dresses and tight suits, the marquees stuffed with caviar and Mumm, one might have detected a fog of sleaze. 

But all that was forgotten in a little over three minutes, when the 100-1 chance Prince Of Penzance galloped first over the line. It was ridden by Michelle Payne, who became the first female jockey to win the race in its 155-year history, and she shared the adulation with her brother – and the horse’s strapper – Stevie, who has Down syndrome. Upon a tide of blissful incredulity, you sensed the pair’s induction into Australian sporting lore. 

Payne’s fame was secured when – still breathless from the race – she excoriated the industry’s culture. “It’s such a chauvinistic sport,” she said. “I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off, and [owner] John Richards and [trainer] Darren [Weir] stuck strongly with me. I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win the Melbourne Cup. I can’t say how grateful I am to them. I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.” 

Payne rewrote the history books, and in telling those who doubted her to “get stuffed” offered us a wonderfully blunt assertion of pride. The phrase will likely be remembered as long as her win, even if her comments were boorishly dismissed as emotional and impetuous by three-time Cup-winning jockey Glen Boss. “Maybe Michelle had a bee in her bonnet and decided to air it,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “A lot of things are said and done and probably she’ll reflect on it in a couple days and say, ‘Maybe I could have handled it better’, maybe not. Michelle’s that type of woman, she’s a real strong character, that’s why we all love her. There probably is an underlying [chauvinism] there, but those barriers are being broken down bit by bit. It’s fair to say it still will be a male-dominated sport, that’s the way it’s been for a long time and the sooner people get their heads around that the better.” Boss later claimed he’d been “hung out to dry” by the newspaper report.

There was one horse that didn’t finish on Tuesday, the 10-year-old Red Cadeaux. It had fractured its fetlock, and the dreaded green screen was erected around it on the course while its owner held his head in his hands. For some, celebration now appeared gauche, inappropriate – while others were too drunk to know, or care. Commentators – not gifted with emotional or intellectual agility – tried to juggle light and dark, offering Red Cadeaux’s injury as a solemn footnote to the stunning triumph. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, and possibly in no other sport is there such a dramatic mixing of sin and virtue. For as much as Racing Victoria feels buoyed and protected by Payne’s fairytale, it can’t dismiss the fog. 

Loving legends

We love our legends. Not merely the subjects of those stories, but the legends themselves. They become beloved adornments to our conversations; they provide a common touchstone. We lovingly revise, modify, polish them. Debate their significance. Bradman, Lillee, Phar Lap. There are sporting legends founded on transcendent talent, and others on clownish excess. But time does a funny thing. It transforms moments of catastrophe or bad manners into charm – and it removes context and unhelpful particulars so we might flatteringly believe a single moment tells us something about ourselves. 

There is arguably no greater legend in Australian racing than Phar Lap. He offers the Cinderella archetype – the unloved, gangly foal that becomes supremely dominant. His triumphant arc is made more dramatic by a failed assassination attempt, and his life given intrigue by a mysterious death – arsenic, it seems, though whether it was maliciously administered is still contested. If arsenic seems an odd thing to beneficently offer a horse, you’d be wrong – for as long as we have raced horses, we have confected poisonous “tonics” to improve their performance.

But our love of his legend is not satisfied by mere stories. Phar Lap’s body is shared across countries – his stuffed carcass is in Melbourne, his giant heart encased in Canberra, his skeleton displayed in the New Zealand town of his birth. But if you remove the lore, you have the outlines of a different story – one continued today. It’s a story of dope, guns, mendacity and organised crime; of cynical cruelty applied to creatures we profess to admire. “It’s a fiercely closed culture,” an administrator tells me. “Some parts of the industry are worse than others. Some parts have kept the supervision of integrity in-house, which is never good.” 

Tainted tonics

In Phar Lap’s day, the preferred tonic was Fowler’s solution – an arsenic-laced concoction that was in the early 19th century given to leukaemia patients. Its ability to improve a horse’s performance was only ever anecdotal – though it improved the horse’s appetite and the sheen of its coat. Fowler’s was just another legend entwined with all the others. Non-fatal in tiny doses, the metallic poison could, however, disastrously accumulate. Today, the industry has not abandoned this twist on grandmother remedies, and its chosen poison is cobalt chloride. 

Cobalt takes its name from the German word for an underground demon, a silvery metallic mineral that is – in altered form – frequently, and illegally, administered to horses. Cobalt exists as a trace element in the animals – administered in accidental and benign levels in foods – but is being increasingly detected in aberrant strengths. Among certain horse trainers, the scientifically untested belief is that cobalt can mimic performance-enhancing drugs – such as steroids – by boosting the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen. What has been determined, though, is that cobalt can have ruinous effects upon the circulatory system, and damage hearing and eyesight. 

Last year, Racing Victoria imposed a maximum acceptable level of cobalt after high quantities had been detected in horses – the threshold has now been applied nationally. The Australian Veterinary Association issued this comment: “Excessive amounts of cobalt can be toxic to horses and in some cases lead to death. That’s why we’re very supportive of the Australian Racing Board’s stance on cobalt.” 

In April this year, two researchers from the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Surrey published one of most detailed papers yet on the effects of cobalt chloride poisoning in horses. It was unbridled in its criticism of the tonic’s lore – how ignorantly its benefits were shared and its damage ignored. “Unfortunately,” the authors wrote, “the internet is a source of inaccurate, conflicting and misleading information about cobalt and its salts.” They then provided a damning example. “This is the introductory text that describes uses of cobalt chloride in horses on one site: ‘Cobalt chloride, also nicknamed blue salt by the horse and cattle community, is often associated with the dietary needs of cows. Cobalt chloride isn’t only for cattle, however. Horses can also benefit from supplements of this essential electrolyte, as non-traditional as their consumption of it may be. Horse owners should use caution in dispensing cobalt chloride to avoid overdoses and unnecessary iodine intake, but there are usually few risks involved.’

“Her article is a top hit on Google … This style of writing clearly gives readers the impression that providing cobalt chloride to horses can improve their overall health. The paper has not had any kind of peer-review and the author does not cite any scientific or clinical papers to back up the claim that ‘Horses can also benefit from supplements of this essential electrolyte’. Clearly cobalt is not a conventional electrolyte. It is a micronutrient and research suggests that micronutrients can be toxic in high concentrations.”

But the authors aren’t just faced with the anarchism of the web, and its abundance of pompously intoned ignorance – they’re faced with an industry that is aware of the risks and contemptuous of the law. This year, in Victoria alone, five prominent trainers are facing suspension for racing horses with exceptional cobalt levels. A sixth man, veterinarian Dr Tom Brennan, admitted this year to providing false evidence in inquiries, and to having supplied cobalt-laced “medicine” to trainers. There is no suggestion any of the horses running in this year’s Cup were doped, but it is a significant problem in the industry.

It can be believed that Victoria’s chief racing steward, Terry Bailey, is determined to prosecute the corruption. The bullets lodged in his family’s home attest to his ambition. But the historic – and rightly celebrated – victory of Michelle Payne is not a cure. Her ride was many things – inspiring, folkloric – but it was also a happy distraction for an industry that hasn’t properly reckoned with its sins.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "On track for infamy". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.