By Ollie Nash
Anthony Van Dyck was the sixth horse since 2013 to die in the Melbourne Cup. Photo: Mark Cranham
Between 2013 and 2020, seven horses have died in the Melbourne Cup Carnival. Six were during the Cup itself, the other in one of the lead up races. All of these horses were international. Anthony Van Dyck was the latest, according to the ABC breaking down mid-2020 Melbourne Cup with a fetlock fracture.
They’re damning numbers and don’t even scratch the surface of the real problem. So damning are they that life-long racing lover and Melbourne Cup enthusiast Gerard Whateley voiced his displeasure of the Cup’s recent high death toll on his 1116 SEN show Whateley.
“Don’t listen to anyone today who tries to tell you ‘these things happen.’ Racing officials investigate each of these events and they find cause to treat them separately and deny that there’s an overall problem,” he said.
“Five times in eight years there’s been a random act of God apparently. Well that’s just not good enough.”
This year alone, 29 overseas horses came to contest the Spring Carnival. Three of these are dead and at least a further two suffered career-ending injuries.
This isn’t any ground-breaking news, it’s common knowledge. What it is doing though is building pressure and angst in the racing industry. People want answers and actions.
Green screens have been a constant in recent Melbourne Cups, The Cliffsofmoher 2018's victim. Photo: AAP/Dan Himbrechts
According to the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) 2020 Deathwatch Report, the fatalities at the race that stops the nation isn’t even the half of it. The 2019-2020 death toll is 116, which is six down on 2018-19 and one more than the 2014 to 2019 average.
The report continues to say the problem doesn’t stop there, with training deaths among others adding to the tally.
“Many thousands of horses die every year from racing related injuries off the track in training, or they are killed prematurely when they are no longer commercially viable, known as ‘wastage’ by the racing industry,” it says.
The reasons for the 116 racing deaths were varied. 59 died from catastrophic front limb injuries, 10 from cardiac causes, nine from bleeds, seven from catastrophic hind limb injuries, four from pelvis injury, two from head trauma, one from a neck injury and 24 from unknown causes. Of those unknown causes, the report states 17 came from serious/catastrophic racing injuries, two collapsed and died, four had no reason given and one fell.
Racing lover or not, they’re damning numbers and I could continue. On 19 occasions the various websites from the states and territories didn’t upload a video replay of a race where a horse was killed. Of the other 97, they either failed to upload the stewards’ vision or edited the replay.
To finish, the CPR acknowledged the 116 horses that have passed in 2019-20. They also mentioned others that sustained an injury mid-race but were taken from the track to avoid their death being recorded in the stewards’ reports, therefore not becoming public knowledge.
Now I’m not stupid, I know horses are active animals that love to run and are naturally inclined to run. However, what we know they don’t love are whips, tongue ties and weights. These three are clear animal cruelty.
2019 Melbourne Cup winner Vow and Declare had visible whip welts post race. While padded, the whips don't look exactly comfortable on the right either. Photos: Kristen Manning and Getty Images
These facets of horse racing fail the eye test for me. In sports, we judge players, coaches and the sport in general in two ways; statistically and through what we see. Jimmy Butler may fail to meet the statistical mark, his aren’t through the roof. However, watch him play and his dominance is clear, passing the eye test. LeBron James, however, passes both with flying colours.
Racing fails statistically, as I’ve mentioned above, and through whips, tongue ties and weights, fails the eye test too.
Despite the fact there is padding on the whips, this is still animal cruelty. Racing lovers may argue there is a limit on the amount of times they can be whipped. This is true, however in the final 100 metres, jockeys are free to whip as much as they like. Whipping in any facet is animal cruelty. To view it any other way would be delusional. Whips inflict pain. Tongue ties cause pain, anxiety, cuts and lacerations to the tongue.
Professor Phil McManus, a Professor of Urban and Environmental Geography specialising in human-animal relations stated the same thing to the Sydney Morning Herald back in October 2019.
“If you whip a horse 18 times in the last 100 metres on a racetrack, it’s ok. If you did the same out in the street, you’d be charged with animal cruelty,” he said.
When it comes to extra weights carried by the horses, which according to Racing Victoria, range from 42.5 kilograms to 59.5 kilograms, it seems like an unnecessary extra physical burden. Anthony Van Dyck was carrying 58.5 kilograms. Celebrity television vet Chris Brown acknowledged the weight and distance were aspects of the race that needed to be looked at. We have to recognise the weight cannot have been good for the horse’s health throughout the 3200-metre race. It’s common sense that 58.5 kilograms is a significant burden for an animal to carry for 3.2 kilometres. Why can't it be put the jockey's on the horses and may the best runner win?
The problems with the industry also include the distances run while training and racing. I could not find one source that explained how the distance of each race is decided upon. Why is the Melbourne Cup 3.2 kilometres? Are we sure the distance is good for the horses? Where is the proof that it is? Yes, horses have done it for more than a hundred years, but AFL footballers also used to go back on the field after being knocked out and we all know how detrimental that is for their health.
There’s cause for doubt now on the distance ran with the amount of fatalities. They are naturally active animals yes, but who is to know how long they want to run? Maybe some do love running long distances, but maybe some don’t. We only have to look as far as Chautauqua, who retired in 2018 after multiple failed jumps in trials and races. He didn’t want to race, plain and simple. In comparison, a horse like Winx clearly revelled in the theatre of racing. The key thing is research. Get experts in this field involved to decide the distances.
Chautauqua not jumping became a regular occurrence by the end of his career. Photo: Getty Images
Professor Chris Whitton, from the U-Vet Werribee Equine Centre backs this up, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that no one knows.
“I don’t know anyone knows. Their instinct is to run. That doesn’t mean they enjoy it. Having an instinct to run and doing it doesn’t mean you enjoy it. It’s an impossible question to answer,” he said.
“The heart rate goes up massively because that’s how they perform and their physiology is designed to enable them to be amazing athletes. How you determine what’s stress and what isn’t is very difficult to tease out.”
Off the track, I’m not going to pretend that I know everything about how the horses are treated and the standards the trainers do or don’t meet. I know a lot of people in the racing industry who love their horses and would never harm them. However, even they will admit the love and care is not shared by others.
Doubt creeps into my mind when some of the best horse trainers of the modern era have been indicted for animal cruelty. Darren Weir is the latest, along with his assistant trainer Jarrod McLean and stable hand Tyson Kermond. The charges include engaging in the torturing, abusing, overworking and terrifying of three racehorses. They allegedly struck the runners with jiggers while they were galloping and wearing blinkers on a treadmill.
Peter Moody was charged with unintentionally administering his horse Lidari with illegal levels of the drug cobalt and banned for six months.
Clearly, not every person involved in horse training is doing this, but there are enough cases of it happening that questions need to be asked and the issues resolved.
Darren Weir and Peter Moody have been two of the best trainers of the modern era, but both faced issues with treatments of horses. Photo: Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
Post-racing life for a horse presents another problem. What happens to them, where do they go and who is tracking these things?
The answer is there is no system or regulations to be followed and it’s very hard to trace. National regulations have made it compulsory for thoroughbred owners to notify Racing Information Services Australia when their horse is retiring. There is no compulsory way to track it to the end of its life though.
RSPCA’s chief executive Liz Walker told the Sydney Morning Herald that there’s no way of tracking the life-cycle of these horses.
“There is no transparency and data and what we think is essential is the mandatory collection and publication of life-cycle statistics from birth to death,” she said.
Professor McManus doubled down on her quote, saying that this information is long overdue.
“There is a lack of reliable information … a horse could be out in a paddock in Cranbourne or Pakenham and then a truck pulls up in the middle of the night and it’s taken to a slaughterhouse. We have to go beyond that first destination, microchip every horse, identify it,” he said.
Of the low amount of information there is, differing stats are presented. A 2004 study funded by the RSPCA, from the University of Sydney, found six percent of horses were sent directly to knackeries. An ABC 7:30 report also found that around 300 racehorses were killed in just 22 days in one Queensland abattoir.
On the flip side, Racing Victoria claim their stats from 2018 say that nearly 90 percent are re-homed, six percent are euthanised, four die naturally and just one percent end up in abattoirs. Clearly, the lack of information on this issue is a problem.
Racing Victoria CEO Giles Thompson and RSPCA CEO Liz Walker have differing views and stats on the lives of race horses post their racing career. Photos: Rob Gunstone and Eamon Gallagher
I have my own opinion on the issue, it’s obvious throughout the piece, but these are the facts. I’ll admit I used to go to the races and have assisted in the making of a Winx documentary in the past. However, like a lot of people I went for the social side, chuck a suit on, have a few beers and a bet and watch the odd race. I really wasn’t paying attention to the horses. The majority of my friends do the same and the others that actually watch the races are doing so because they’re betting. I’ll never go to or bet on the races again.
Gerard Whateley rightly stated this is what racing has become. In order to keep it relevant to modern society, it’s focused its attention on the fashion, celebrities and the most obvious one, gambling. Watch any coverage of the races and you will hear the word “market” a lot. The betting side is shoved down your throat, as is all the fashion and glamorous side of the day. Maybe, they’re trying to compensate for the not so glamorous side of the industry?
Things need to change. Whips, tongue ties and weights are the clear ones that need to go. Microchipping and management of the horse’s post racing life are next. Research into race distances, track conditions and training loads are third. Stop the animal cruelty and prevent horse deaths because as Gerard Whateley said, these incidents should be one in every 40 or 50 years, not three times in one Spring Carnival.
Cover Photo: EPA