Hundreds of racehorses are being sent to the slaughterhouse, the ABC revealed this week, in contravention of racing rules and basic decency. What's more, before they're killed, many of those horses are subjected to the kind of horrific abuse we probably all assume doesn't happen in a society where we lavish affection on our pets
, donate to the RSPCA and venerate Phar Lap as a big-hearted equine god.
The head of Racing Australia has foreshadowed prosecutions, which seems inevitable and necessary, and anyone who sees the report will no doubt be sickened and angered. As they should be. But are we shocked? Really, truly, shocked? I know that racing is draped in gentility and tradition, and trainers bond deeply with their charges, and that watching a thoroughbred gallop is an extraordinary, inspiring thing.
And I know a lot of people in racing just adore horses, and some probably prefer them to humans — which, based on these revelations, seems more than appropriate. But haven't cynics been saying for years that horses end up getting turned into dog food and adhesives? Don't most of us understand that when we're told that an elderly animal has been sent to a lovely farm where they can run around all they like, they've instead been sent to the knackers?
C'mon — even Corey White's popular recent memoir is called The Prettiest Horse In The Glue Factory.
Are we really shocked?
We've been hearing about this kind of thing for years. Three years ago, Good Weekend published a heartbreaking article by a breeder's daughter that explained how many of the industry's underperformers ended up in the slaughterhouse. Nobody who read that could be shocked by this report. And are we shocked after the revelations about greyhound racing, which were so horrific that the sport was banned in NSW? Those revelations, incidentally, were also courtesy of the ABC's investigative powerhouse Caro Meldrum-Hanna. Horse racing is a business like any other, and a crucial piece of the enormous gambling industry.
Are we shocked that such abuse can happen when we know that without vigorous regulation, businesses often behave unscrupulously? What, even after the banking royal commission revealed that several big banks were billing dead people? Breeding horses is a gamble in itself — even the most successful parents can give birth to a dud. The more times you roll the genetic dice, the more chances you have at ending up with Winx — but the more unsuccessful horses you have on your hands. It's the simple mathematics of the horse racing industry. We should expect horses who don't make the genetic grade to be cared for throughout their 30-year lifespans, as expensive as that is — and when we drop more than $600 million betting on Melbourne Cup day alone, you'd think that even a modest levy would provide decent equine retirement facilities.
Racing and death go hand in hand
But speaking of the Cup, haven't we all learnt in recent years that the racing industry and horse fatalities are stablemates? I stopped caring about the race that stopped the nation in 2013, when amid the champagne and high fashion, a French horse called Verema snapped a bone in her leg. She had to be put down right there on the track, her plight unsubtly concealed by green blinds. It made the race result seem insignificant, and yet, the party continued as usual. The following year, two horses died on race day, another in 2015, and last year The Cliffsofmoher became the latest thoroughbred to depart this world on the Flemington track due to a horrible mid-race injury.
For me, and I suspect many people, the association between racing and horses dying is now indelible. Cup Day conjures up associations with green blinds as readily as trifectas or fascinators, and when they go up, a day of boozy fun feels like a wake. But the fact that a horse dies every year or two seems to have been treated as an acceptable cost of doing business. The Cup is worth $8 million now, and Sydney has launched an even more lucrative competitor, ironically named The Everest after another place that's increasingly known for multiple fatalities in the course of athletic activity. So forgive me if I'm not shocked by the revelation that some of those involved in a sport where horses are whipped to make them run faster are guilty of animal cruelty. Forgive me if I'm not surprised that a sport that is deeply embedded with the gambling industry is guilty of ethical lapses.
And forgive me if this year, it doesn't seem quite right to sip champagne while watching an event where there's significant odds that one of the athletes won't make it to the finish line.