Horse racing priorities off track
On our small property is a graveyard. In it lies a beautiful black thoroughbred mare. Sally had been thrown out of racing because she was unmanageable. Once calmed down and retrained, she changed character. In a dressage arena, this cantankerous mare would prick her ears with pleasure and glide around as graceful as a prima ballerina.
After 16 years of happy retirement, Sally grew old, crippled by terrible arthritis. Reluctantly, we knew she had to be euthanised. Sedated so that she would not be upset nor feel too much fear, she was given a lethal injection. A digger excavated an enormous hole. The digger lowered Sally gently into the ground in her favourite place under the pine trees. We hid the other horses in a back paddock so they would not see her die. But they knew something was up and screamed out, calling for their lost mate. After she was buried, we released them and they galloped over, neighing time and again, sniffing the mound suspiciously. For many days they craned their necks looking down the road, anxiously searching for Sally, great cries of loss ringing around the hills.
That night, shaken and saddened, we saw some city friends. We explained to their wondering faces that rather than send Sally to the knackery – the other way of disposing of a dead horse, where they are shot, often in the sight of other horses, and the body used for pet meat or glue – a horse’s body should be honoured by being buried.
By nightfall of the race that stops a nation, two of the runners were dead. On the final straight Admire Rakti, the Caulfield Cup-winner and race favourite, had slowed dramatically and fell back through the field. He finished some 25 lengths behind the second last horse and, while walking back to his stall, began shaking uncontrollably. Once in his stall, he collapsed. Before they rushed a green plastic screen around him, his great form could be seen sprawled out, black mane flowing over golden brown coat. Within minutes he was dead.
The celebrations over the German horse Protectionist’s win were now overshadowed by a funereal pall as people reeled in shock. Over and over, they played the footage of the magnificent stallion’s collapse, monumental and terrible. Before the autopsy that would reveal the horse died of heart failure – a rare but fatal cardiac arrhythmia brought on by extreme exertion – there was news of another fatal injury. The seventh placegetter, Araldo, was spooked by a spectator waving an Australian flag while walking back to scale. Again a camera caught the moment. Eyes wild and nostrils flared, mouth wide open in terror, Araldo kicked out, shattering a bone in his hind leg into so many pieces it resembled a “bag of ice”. He was taken to Werribee veterinary hospital but could not be saved. A second Melbourne Cup horse – the third in two years – had died.
The front-page photo for that morning’s Herald Sun, featuring model Gigi Hadid with Admire Rakti, was still on the stands. It shows him curling his long neck around her, ears curious, brown eyes kind, his soft muzzle playfully mouthing the golden cup she is holding.
Earlier this year, an animal welfare group, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, had paid for a billboard showing a confronting picture of a dead horse, with the caption “Horeseracing Kills. Is the party really worth it?” The racing industry was outraged. It was removed. Yet now, as television cameras played the last moments of the day’s two fatalities, it seemed less a “hysterical” question, and more a reasonable one.
Race officialdom went into public relations overdrive. Dr Brian Stewart, Racing Victoria’s head vet, declared defensively, “They are very well looked after, very healthy and are very much loved by everybody.” Indeed, a Japanese handler of Admire Rakti could be seen weeping by the horse’s stall. Stewart went on: “It is not a matter of horses being worked too hard or that we ask too much of athletes. They are elite athletes … It happens in humans – do we stop people running in marathons? … I don’t think this very rare, one-off incident is enough to say racing is definitely unacceptable in any way.”
But wait a moment. Elite athlete? This is a monumental fudge. A human athlete walks onto the track entirely as a matter of volition. The racehorse does not. The horse is entirely dependent upon and in the control of humans. And if Stewart really wants to make the racehorse an equine “athlete” equivalent to a human one, he might also explain his defence of the whip. Can we imagine the uproar if Olympic running coaches were allowed to dash onto the final 400 metres of a marathon – the Melbourne Cup equivalent – and whip their exhausted human charges to run faster?
In an older agricultural era, utilising animals for one’s livelihood was an unquestioned right. A new sensibility, centred on the animal as a sentient being able to feel fear and pain, is now colliding with that outlook, as evidenced by the successful social media campaigns over live animal exports. At one extreme are industry diehards: economics trumps animal welfare. At the other end of the spectrum are animal welfare advocates who oppose animals being “used” or exploited by humans in any way, the philosophical vegans.
What is a reasonable ethic of care for such obviously sensitive, sentient beings as horses, with their rich inner life and profound social bonds to each other? In Denmark they have passed a law that prohibits horses from being kept alone, out of respect for their unbearable separation anxiety when away from their kin. In Norway, the whip has been banned in horseracing since 1982.
The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) ultimately wants all racing to cease. Given the amount of money involved, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. The racing industry is worth an estimated $6 billion a year, while Australians wager more than $14 billion on horseracing yearly, with a $700 million spent on the Cup in 2011.
Yet the industry is vulnerable to losing what Australian Racing Board CEO Peter McGauran has called its “social licence” if the public thinks it is cruel. A majority of Victorians do not agree with jumps racing, according to a recent ABC poll. A horse is 20 times more likely to die in a jumps race than a flat race. Brian Stewart said that on jumps race day, “I have to admit I’m conflicted.” Only South Australia and Victoria still have jumps racing. In August, the Adelaide Advertiser reported that the South Australian Jockey Club “believes jumps racing is more trouble than it’s worth and wants out”.
And what happens to former racehorses after they leave the track? For all the talk of how those in the business love their horses, and some do, they are also a commodity, with an expiry date on their value, able to be replaced, exchanged and reproduced. As Black Caviar trainer Peter Moody admitted: “I do have a soft spot for some horses, but it is a business and I can’t afford to get too attached.” It costs owners $35,000 a year to keep a promising galloper at a prestige city stable. At that price, how long will anyone persist with a horse not showing ability? People discard one horse and try again with another.
In the industry this is called “wastage”. The lucky ones, such as our Sally, go on to find new homes. Despite greater efforts by Racing Victoria to place horses, too many still end up at the bleak “doggers” yards, bought by “kill buyers” at Echuca saleyards and slaughtered for pet meat. A racehorse that lives to 30 costs several thousand dollars a year to keep. CPR proposes that 1 per cent of the $14 billion wagered yearly be given towards horse welfare after their racing ends, a kind of superannuation scheme for racehorses. Given the money made in racing, it seems a small price tag for decency.
At the track one hears the loud sounds of whips thwacking on horse hide. A horse may be hit 18 times in a race. Banning the whip has the greatest opposition, especially from jockeys, who see it as a threat to their livelihood. Yet one careful Australian study from Sydney University school of veterinary science, by Professor Paul McGreevy and Dr David Evans, found whipping did not “affect the probability of winning”. It was increasing speed between the 600- and 400-metre marks before the post, when horses were not whipped, that determined the outcome, rather than the last 400 metres when they were whipped. As they got tired – and were hit repeatedly – they actually slowed. Whipping, the researchers concluded, was “futile”. Another study found many more violations of the whip rules than were punished by the stewards. The new-style padded whips often cause welts and frequently land on forbidden areas of the horse, the sensitive flank, groin and abdomen areas.
The deaths of Araldo and Admire Rakti cannot be altered. They might however, make Australians reflect with greater empathy on how we treat our racehorses. At the end of Cup day, I found myself wondering, how had the stablemates of the two dead horses reacted to their absence? How were their bodies disposed of? How long will we sustain current practices in the face of our growing awareness of horses as sentient beings, with very particular sensitivities, fears, pleasures and emotions?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 15, 2014 as "Priorities off track". Subscribe here.