Jonathan Horn
Fools and horses at Melbourne Cup

On Melbourne Cup day last year, the thrice married, twice bankrupt and once jailed septuagenarian Geoffrey Edelsten, wearing a canary-yellow suit, dropped to his knee and proposed to his then 25-year-old girlfriend, Gabi Grecko. Within the hour, her $50,000 pear-shaped diamond engagement ring had slipped off her finger and fallen under a couch in the Emirates marquee. With the foreign minister, The Bachelor, the mohawked mayor of Geelong and Australia’s only Tour de France winner looking on, they scrounged for it on their hands and knees.

Edelsten, whose 24-hour medical practices were fitted with grand pianos and mink-covered examination tables, was in his natural habitat. The Birdcage was, a gossip columnist wrote the next day, “electric”. In the G. H Mumm marquee, Yasa caviar had been freighted in from Abu Dhabi the night before. More than $8000 was spent on each guest. Later, the black curtains went up and the Cote d’Azur-themed tent transformed into a nightclub. The Swisse marquee featured a glass-encased pergola and a herb garden. In the Emirates marquee, celebrity hairdresser Joey Scandizzo was on hand for touch-ups.

Several hours later, the German horse Protectionist sprinted away to win the Melbourne Cup.

Minutes later, the race favourite, Admire Rakti, had a heart attack in his stall and died. In the Caulfield Cup just over a fortnight earlier, the Japanese star had descended on the frontrunners like a dive-bomber at the Battle of Midway. “Admire Rakti mows her down!” racecaller Greg Miles cried. On the day of the Melbourne Cup, Admire Rakti was pictured on the front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun with a Sports Illustrated model. He bit her arm playfully. But there were whispers he wasn’t quite right. He drifted in betting. He was tightly wound in the mounting yard. He never looked comfortable in the running and was a beaten horse 600 metres out.

While he was dying, the chief vet was attending to another cup runner, Araldo, who had fractured his cannon bone after being spooked by a fan’s flag. His leg was so badly smashed it was described as being “like a bag of ice”. His handler, who described him as “my best mate”, lay with the dying horse.

It was, the tipsters on racing channel TVN agreed, “a cracking day’s racing”.

The subsequent 12 months have been less successful for all involved. The remains of Admire Rakti and Araldo were cremated and buried in the memorial garden at the Living Legends complex. Edelsten and Grecko married, but now, as far as one can tell, have split. Australian racing has been blighted by doping allegations and TV rights’ wars. The sport of kings’ poorer cousin, greyhound racing, has been exposed as an excrementitious mess. Last year’s Melbourne Cup winner is injured and out for six months. Earlier this week, shots were fired at the home of Racing Victoria’s chief steward, Terry Bailey. One racing writer, with an apparently straight face, wrote, “Australian racing lost its innocence late on Sunday night …”

The AFL does it best to monopolise October’s sporting media cycle with its infernal trade period. But this is racing’s window. A sport that is mainly conducted in darkness is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. And yet crowds have been noticeably down for all the major lead-up events. Despite a conga line of 1s next to its name in the form guide, this year’s dominant Cox Plate winner, Winx, played second fiddle at the meet to Daryl Braithwaite belting out his signature hit, “The Horses”, for the 10-billionth time.

Horseracing folk are all too aware that the sport must sell its soul in order to survive – to the corporate bookies, to the overseas raiders, to the Birdcage birdbrains. They know that the true heart of their sport beats not at Flemington in November, but at meetings in such places as Warrnambool and Kembla Grange, racetracks rich with those bony, laconic accents reminiscent of an Australia long gone.

They also know that, for the most part, the allegations of cruelty don’t stack up. Anyone who’s seen a strapper, stablehand or equine vet tend to an injured thoroughbred is left in no doubt as to their love of animals. Many earn nothing and endure shocking working conditions. Horses, they say, shatter fetlocks at pony clubs, at cross-country events, on farms. It is life on the land, they say; something you urbanised, deskbound, righteously indignant do-gooders have no idea about.

But racing people are notoriously defensive. On the Friday before Derby Day last year, Racing Victoria took out full-page ads in both Melbourne dailies. Trainer Peter Moody explained “Why I do what I do” in an open letter. “I work hard to give my horses nothing but the best,” he wrote. “I love horses. It’s as simple as that. And when you truly believe in something, you do what you’ve got to, no matter how much manure you have to shovel.”

Leaving aside the fact Moody has since been implicated in a doping scandal, which he rejects, and that he was photographed at Anzac Cove wearing nothing but a bucket hat hanging from his penis, it was a neat snapshot of the syrupy, woe-betide-us mentality in which racing traffics. In the wake of another very public equine death, at Royal Randwick, last Saturday, Racing Victoria chairman David Moodie penned an open letter to thousands of local owners, urging the industry to rally in the face of anti-racing campaigners. Again, the us-against-them mindset.

The death of a racehorse, they point out, is not a tragedy. But whether it constitutes an afternoon’s family entertainment bears thinking about. In terms of ghoulish sights, a thoroughbred breaking a leg ranks high. Kasiano Lad, which had pulled up mildly lame the week before, last week broke its near foreleg in the Randwick straight and had to be destroyed. The verbiage in the stewards report was typically anodyne. But what of the racegoers? Anyone with a half-decent vantage point would have seen the horse go down. They may have heard it screaming. Did they keep drinking? Did they tear up their TAB tickets in disgust? Did they usher their kids away? Was it a “cracking day’s racing”?

Back in the day, when a horse broke its leg, you heard the sound of a rifle. The dead animal would be hauled onto a semitrailer. By sundown it would be lying in pieces at a processing plant. But social media has changed everything. These days, they’ve barely called “Correct weight!” before the whole thing’s on YouTube. Twitter and Facebook feeds become unbearable. Battlelines are quickly drawn – the “ferals” versus the “industry”. The middle ground is sparsely populated.

I used to love the sport. I loved its gallows humour, its rich literature, its hint of scandal. Some of my favourite sporting memories – Might and Power’s Caulfield Cup win, Super Impose’s Cox Plate – are horseracing ones. One of my most cherished working days was at the stables of Bart Cummings – watching him gossip, plot and frown, watching animals soften around him.

But the whole thing sits increasingly uneasily. The way it’s at the mercy of the wagering industry. The yahoos on the betting ads. The slow-motion montages of owners celebrating their wins. The anthropomorphism. The sentimental slush. The way, as Neville Penton wrote in A Racing Heart: The Story of the Australian Turf, it “elevates a chosen few and dumps its rejects into life’s big tip”. More than anything, there comes a point where watching a green hessian screen being erected around a dying animal loses some of its appeal.

Several years ago, a West Australian horse called Crying Game ran in the Melbourne Cup. Someone asked the owner the reason behind the name. “I named it after racing in general,” she said.

It’s not a “game”, of course. You don’t “play” at being a jockey. You certainly don’t “play” at being a racehorse. But what is it exactly, this thing that warrants a public holiday in Victoria, that prompts us to whack $800 million on a single race? Is it a sport? An industry? A school formal-cum-abattoir?

Our hyper-competitive sporting market – as cricket, soccer and Australian rules football have discovered – rewards reinvention, inclusiveness, clarity. But racing seems determined to tread its own path. Save for one mad week of mandatory gaiety, it remains at the margins – beleaguered, arcane, and increasingly at odds with a rapidly changing Australia. And this is the sport’s great quandary. Because the product itself is the problem. No matter how many vets they have on course, no matter how many rehoming initiatives they announce, no matter how many open letters they pen, as far as the public is concerned, the horse has already bolted. At its very core, racing belongs to a different era, and it may never catch up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "Fools and horses".

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Jonathan Horn is a sportswriter who has covered the Olympic Games and the Tour de France.

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