I’d hate to be a nag…

The distant rumble of thundering thoroughbreds can be heard as they round the final turn.

Closer to home the noise escalates and becomes an ominous din, there’s no escaping it now.  Something’s gotta give.

The growing rumblings over the Australian horse racing industry have similarly reached a crescendo.  More articles are being written, talkback radio is abuzz and protests are gaining momentum.  As the pre-eminent lobby group for stronger regulations to significantly reduce the suffering and deaths of race horses and would-be racers, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses has provided the media a go-to mouthpiece for the emerging disenchantment.

Despite what racing reactionaries would have you believe, they do not seek to dismantle an industry that generates 64,000 full-time jobs and over a billion dollars in state and federal taxes per year.  Even this ‘radical fringe group’, as they’ve been labelled, know that is totally unrealistic.  What’s more, Australian thoroughbred racing claims to spend approximately $30bn pa leading to a direct economic impact of $41bn. According to the VRC, the Spring Carnival alone generates an economic stimulus in excess of $360m to Victoria and $750m nationally.

What the CPR is campaigning for are measures such as banning underdeveloped 2 year olds from racing, whips that push horses beyond their natural capacity and a greater effort to reduce ‘wastage’ – that is the dirty little secret of over-breeding and the inability to sustain the hotly debated but not insignificant quantity of redundant horses that wind up at the knackery.

Following the death of Verema in last year’s Cup, the timing of Admire Rakti and Araldo’s high profile demise was the VRC’s worst nightmare.  Whereas CPR spokesman Ward Young seems willing to put forward constructive ideas to improve racehorse welfare, it would appear many of the racing fraternity find it easier to simply dismiss and denounce the so-called ‘uninformed f-wits’ apparently committed to ruining their fun.  The road toll, hypocritical meat eating and not caring about jockeys who’ve died are just a few bizarre analogies and accusations I’ve seen made to discredit the ‘ambulance chasing do-gooders’ (myself included).

I mean, how dare anyone call into question the racing industry’s ethics when it boasts such a fine track record?

The oft cited love of the magnificent beasts, the lengths to which the horses are cared for and the ‘natural racers’ line at least purport to some level of coherency as cases for the defense.

And there is little doubt most stable hands, jockeys, trainers and owners love their horses, and there’s no doubt active nags are treated superbly (besides the actual racing bit that has cost 129 horses in Australia their lives in the space of a year).  Of course they are, as any other high priced investment would be, particularly one that is the living equivalent of a Formula 1 racing car.  But the trouble is, like an F1, they are so finely tuned and in some ways so delicate that even the most minor accident can render them destined for the scrap heap.

Yes, retired and failed horses do find other vocations such as equestrian events, police duty or producing million dollar offspring.  However, there is disturbing research that indicates a large number aren’t so fortunate.  Just how many is a matter the VRC itself admits requires better tracking.

One Australian export abattoir study found half the exported meat carried burnt-in brands indicating a racing origin, and a further portion fitted the breed specifications of would-be racers.

A University of Melbourne study found race exertion sees half of race horses bleed in the windpipe and 90% bleed deeper in the lungs. High-concentrate grain diets (rather than extended grazing) can lead to gastric ulcers. A study of racehorses at Randwick found 89% had stomach ulcers, and many of the horses had deep, bleeding ulcers within eight weeks of training commencement.

Then there are the more obvious muscular-skeletal injuries, such as torn ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints and occasional fractured bones. Meanwhile jumps racing would appear to be living on borrowed time in its present format.

As with football and other entertainments, what may have been acceptable in 1984 will not pass muster in 2014.  When the hysteria and the emotions settle after the most recent tragedies, the questions to ask the thoroughbred industry must surely be whether it is prepared to make some hard decisions and whether it does redirect an acceptable percentage of its vast income to seriously address the problem.

I accept this piece won’t sit easily with some Almanackers.  Though it is clear which side of the railing I sit I hope I’ve addressed the topic with some level of balance and pragmatism.  Some of the facts may be in dispute but the growing rumble of discontent cannot be ignored by the sport if it wants to protect its reputation and future.  Geoffrey Edelsten certainly won’t save it.

Something’s gotta give.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Very thoughtful piece, Jeff. Amid all the self-congratulatory hoopla and frankly bullshit put out by the racing industry it is important to hear balancing arguments.
    First thing is that all the ‘economic benefits’ of racing spin has to be taken with a large dose of salts. The claim this week of $XXm benefit due to ‘networking’ at Flemington had me vomiting. The same networking wouldn’t have been done in Collins Street or Pitt Street in a normal week? Spare us the lies dressed up as (purchased) economic analysis. Reminds me of the Alan Bond’s accountant joke “How much is 2+2?” – “How much would you like it to be?”
    I accept that the racing and gambling industries are major employers and tax payers (save for Betfair which keeps overheads down and divvies up by structuring itself to minimise social responsibilities). But the financial, social and emotional costs of lost productivity and working hours, crime, depression, suicide etc are never counted in any economic cost benefit analysis. The nay sayers will point out that drugs, drink and pokies consume more victims than horse racing – and they are right. But it doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real.
    At a time when we are ‘mourning’ the public death of 2 thoroughbreds, what about the private deaths and family traumas of the many more punters who will be found at the end of a rope in the next month? It happens in private and no one wants to add to the family trauma and shame – but I have gone to the funerals.
    Blokes who gave up on life because it was too hard to give up on the punt and the drink..
    I guess its because I’m getting old and grumpy, but as someone who worked on Tuesday and avoided the pubs and the TAB’s I find the whole thing an increasingly ‘end of days’ public disgrace. Just walking to the train 5 hours after the race with tarted up young blokes and women staggering shit faced down the street, yelling and arguing. I can normally avoid that stuff by not going to the nightclub areas after midnight, but “Cup Day’ has somehow become a national day for celebrating excess and making a dick of yourself.
    Flemington looking like a third world cesspit after the marauding tribes have vacated.
    Gabi and Geoffrey – need I say more?
    The Cup Carnival is a marketing device that sells grog and fancy clothes, and finds new puntdrunks to sustain the real racing industry for the other 51 weeks.
    End of days.

  2. Thanks Peter – my one line regarding the track record of the racing industry’s ethics alluded to much of what you say. But that’s a whole other story. I guess at least those who partake and enjoy the racing scene, and to an arguable extent those who’ve suffered because of it, have made that choice.

  3. Jeff – sadly the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (and its colleagues) only has one aim – to end racing. Its an absurdity to suggest that such a lobby group would stop if it achieved a ban of racing two year olds or on whip usage. It is a well known tactic in the political lobby arena that an ambit claim (like “ban horse racing now!”) is the wrong way to go. The approach is to chip away and succeed in the long term.

    A classic example is the Quit campaign (which I happen to support). It knew it could never eliminate smoking by insisting on a total and abrupt ban. Instead it attacked the issue one step at a time – no smoking in pubs, then restaurants, then out the front of public buildings, then public parks, then motor vehicles…..you get the drift.

    The anti racing lobby has the same approach. If its not this Coalition it will be another one that takes up the cause.

    Having said all of that I do believe that the racing industry does need to be held to account, especially in the areas you have pointed out. However to suggest that the two deaths in the Cup were anyway related to shortcomings in the industry is simply not accurate. Admire Racti died of heart failure. Its rare but it happens. It was a seasoned, tough race horse, not a flimsy two year old. And Araldo died after a freak accident – nothing to do with racing.

    You made some very good points in this piece; many I would support. But I’m not a fan of protest by stealth.

  4. There’s a number of things about the horseracing industry that interest me. I’ve followed pacing for many years and know people who’ve bred dozens of horses with only 10% making it to the track(any track) but they still breed in hope.
    First that the horse is sound of wind and leg and second that they can sell shares in the training,feed,vet bills, gear, jockeys and so on for one horse so they can keep the better prospects for themselves.Fair enough, it’s a business, and backers go into it with their eyes open,you’d think,but there’s a lot of sizzle and not much steak

    Why isn’t horse semen allowed to be sold or exported? Every other animal breeding program in the world does it.
    And why are horses banned for bleeding from the nose when on race day they can bleed internally pre- and post-race with no way of checking

  5. Dips – Protest and reform by stealth are productive and inevitable. The enormous gains in public health achieved by the anti-smoking campaigners could not have been with a full frontal assault. The economic and political power of vested interests is too great.
    We pay James Packer and his ilk a hidden tax for the privilege of ensuring our ongoing corruption.
    As Paul Keating used to say – “always back self interest, at least you know you’re on a trier.
    In a market – based society (much of which I applaud and benefits from) it is just a case of using their own weapons (like PR spin and emotional manipulation) against them, to ameliorate the worst effects of market failures, and exploitation of market power.
    Who tells the biggest lies in the struggle for hearts and mind – the rich or the powerless?

  6. Skip of Skipton says

    I hope you are a Vegan who doesn’t own a dog or a cat, Jeff.

  7. Dips – yep, Araldo’s death was a freak occurrence and Admire Ratki’s demise similarly so – though the length of the race and heat may have been contributing factors for the latter.

    But if nothing else they did serve to shine a light on the others occurring on a regular basis from more common race specific causes. This is just the tip of the iceberg though, what deserves more scrutiny and perhaps better understanding is what lies beneath, the premature deaths that aren’t reported or evident at the track and the degree of stress racehorses suffer during a race.

    There is no way in hell the CPR will end racing, even if members do hold that desire in the long term. I have no problem with them using graphic means to sell their message though, for there is no way of taking on Goliath and effecting any change or introspection in 2014 without using shock tactics. That’s just another reality.

  8. DBalassone says

    Ironic that two animals die but the winning horse is called ‘Protectionist’. Is this the universe’s idea of a sick cosmic joke?
    Great, gutsy piece Jeff.

  9. Thanks Jeff for admitting the true agenda of CPR. We can now read and hear their comments in the right context.

  10. Jerry Seinfeld said it all: “Mighty careful steppin’ down the stretch. The most important thing is your health.”

  11. LOL Peter ‘crazy glue’.

    Dips the comments & opinion pieces put forward by ‘experts’ and others whose living depends on the racing industry also require context. Case in point;


  12. Thank you JD for your thoughtful examination of a complex and challenging topic. A topic prone to intense subjectivity and protectionist hyperbole.

    I have been dismayed by the simplistic reactions from the racing industry. How do you think the general public would react if two sportspeople died directly after having played in the Grand Final? Especially if someone died from a heart attack after having run their guts out! It is not enough that the Chief Steward (and others) make sweeping statements about the love practitioners have for their horses and that horses are treated better than humans. That merely masks what curious outsiders to the horse game, such as myself, are interested to know. And that is, how and why did deaths occur. Deaths! Shrugging your shoulders and claiming the insurance position of freak accident does not cut it.

    What is in question is what rights do these animals have and who decides their rights. This to me seems the starting point – the question of understanding animal rights in context with human rights. As I understand it, Animal Law has only been around since the late ’70s. It is only in recent years in Australia that Animal Law has started to take off as a field of legal scholarship. It is now, apparently, the fastest growing area of legal scholarship. This suggests two things. One, that the general public is becoming more enlightened about Animal Rights as seen through the Law. Second, that enlightenment is developing a power base to better contest animal welfare and rights. Long overdue I say. The Racing fraternity should welcome developments in Animal rights, if as is claimed, they love their horses.

    Sadly, that won’t save these two horses but it might assist set up a better model for how humans work with and treat horses. At the very least it might shed light on something that has beguiled me about horse racing for a very long time – why is a whip necessary. I have never understood that one and I have never been given an answer that comes close to sounding reasonable. Imagine an argument for the defence: Yes Your Honour, I used a whip. How often? A couple of times, maybe three or four times. Only as I saw necessary and fit Your Honour. Why did I use the whip? Your Honour, it was my deep, heartfelt love for my friend and my educated belief that they could be more productive, that they could win this one. That is why I used a whip.

  13. Thanks Jeff, good summary. As a long time disliker of Melbourne Cup day which seems to increase in intensity with each passing first Tuesday in November, I was completely dismayed by everything that happened on Tuesday. Especially, as you mention, the vitriol spewed towards anyone who thought to question whether animal welfare practices in the racing industry are sufficient.

    I think it’s important for a considered discussion on these matters. As you say a lot of people rely on this industry for their livelihood and it is a major pastime and love for so many. Surely they want to be sure that it is an industry they can be comfortable with, being aware of its weaknesses.

    So much of what we saw in defence on Tuesday was playing the man – whether it be straight out abuse, the logical fallacy of poisoning the well or attempting to point out the hypocrisies of the questioner. Those supporting the industry should defend it – not weaken their own position by personally attacking others.

  14. Thanks Dave & Rick for your comments.

    I think what is required is an independent investigation into all matters around racehorse welfare. That way both sides will be in a better position to engage in meaningful discussion and hopefully action, rather than acute defensiveness and spin.

    Really, it’s ultimately in the horseracing industry’s interests to be proactive and transparent. And so too would the CPR benefit from independent and verified stats around wastage to sit alongside the University of Melbourne study linked to in my article.

  15. May I recommend…

    1. Fixed by Matthew Benns (Ebury Press)

    2. Banning the whip.

    3. Banning bloody idiots waving Australian flags at the races (and other places).

  16. May I recommend not watching Ch7

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