One of Australia’s most iconic sporting events was celebrated the other day. It was the running of the Melbourne Cup. This is a horse race, run over three miles, held on the first Tuesday in November each year that literally stops the nation. Although, calling this year’s race a celebration might be glib under the circumstances.
There was certainly nothing to celebrate after the race. The race favorite, a horse from Japan called Admire Rakti, ran last and later collapsed and died in his stall. Admire Rakti was a champion. He came to Melbourne for this year’s spring racing carnival winning the Caulfield Cup. But his trainers, vets and connections, as well as the Australian Jockey Club stewards, were not aware he was suffering from an extremely rare heart condition. The 3200 metre Melbourne Cup race was simply too much for him. Although I should point out he was observed to exhibit pre race signs that all was not well with him and it might have been better to scratch him. But even if that happened, would it have saved his life? The answer is probably not. I guess we can all look back with 20/20 hindsight after the event.
But we were still not done with race day tragedy. Another horse, Araldo placed seventh in the Cup, was returning to the stables, when he was spooked by a spectator waving a flag. Araldo lashed out and kicked a fence shattering his hind leg. He had to be destroyed on veterinary advice.
Of course this has caused understandable outrage. Two magnificent thoroughbred animals ending up dead after a horse race is not a good day for the sport of kings. Animal rights activists called for immediate changes in the racing industry to prevent what it described as “unnecessary deaths.”
A group calling itself the Coalition For The Protection Of Racehorses protested at the racecourse after the running of the Melbourne Cup and some of its supporters, video taped Admire Rakti’s collapse in his stall, which, in my view, was completely tasteless under the circumstances. But the position they took garnered massive support on social media with thousands of people taking to Twitter and Facebook, to express horror, outrage and sadness.
Here are some of the tweets that were posted: “ I heard next year the favorite will be “any horse to die”, probably paying $1.04.”
“What a debacle horse racing really is. I am horrified about the death and casualty of two horses. Hope it was worth it.”
“If only it was the nation that stopped the race.”
The Coalition For The Protection Of Racehorses paid for a huge billboard to be displayed in Melbourne with the slogan: Is the Party Worth It? Underneath the slogan there is a picture of a dead horse.
If this group was not taken seriously before they will be now. What they have to say will resonate over the coming days and weeks.
A coalition spokesman said he believed the death of the two Melbourne Cup horses would change people’s perspective on the treatment of racehorses. A total of 129 racehorses died on Australian racetracks between August last year and July this year. That equated to one racehorse every 2.9 days. The coalition has also called for a ban on two year old racing and jockeys being allowed to whip horses during the race.
There is no doubt the general public is starting to question the credibility of the racing industry when it comes to the health, welfare and safety of thoroughbred horses. Jumps racing is a classic case in point. Horses die during those races. The industry knows it but refuses to ban the practice.
Animal welfare group say they are planning to target races involving two-year- old horses. Racing them at such a young age when their muscles and joints have not been fully developed leads to problems down the track. More than half the horses that died last year were raced as two-year-olds.
But supporters of horse racing point to the fact that the racing industry in Australia is almost as old as the nation itself. It employs tens of thousands of people. Contributes more than a billion dollars to the Australian economy. In pure statistical terms there are 30 thousand thoroughbred horses in work. Twenty thousand horse races take place each year. So the death rate in a given year is about 0.4 percent or put another way, one racehorse dies every 160 races.
So are accidents and deaths part and parcel of the racing industry? Did Admire Rakti die because he was pushed beyond his physical limits? Or was it just a case of bad luck? I’m not sure I know the answer to any of those questions. The truth about whether the sport of kings is cruel, or not, probably lies somewhere in the middle. What I do know is my heart skips a beat every time I hear of a magnificent four legged elite athlete cut down in their prime.