opinion

OPINION: "Shame won’t change the racing industry." The other side of the Melbourne Cup debate.

Mamamia understands that Australians have diverse views when it comes to events like the Melbourne Cup. You can read more about the facts around horse racing in 2019 here, a defence of the industry here, and the perspective of some animal rights activists here.

Realistically, horse racing is not going to stop. Its origins date back to 459 BC. So if you’re concerned with the welfare of horses while they are racing, isn’t now the most important time in history to lean into the industry and be a voice for change, rather than say #NupToTheCup?

Former US president Barack Obama said last week: “Woke people who simply call out others without trying to educate or improve society aren’t activists”.

I’ve always been a believer in walk the walk before you talk the talk. Which is why as a horse-lover, I am a part owner in a racehorse.

Working as a journalist and presenter, I found myself increasingly attending race day events. It didn’t go unnoticed that there were protestors outside. At this point I want to say to those people, high-five to you. You have my full respect. I also appreciate that if you live your life by vegan practices, or don’t believe animals should have any commercial gain, then I understand this isn’t for you.

Do racehorses have a voice in any of this? I’m still actively learning, but here’s what I can share.

Chautauqua, dappled grey gelding, at one stage regarded as ‘the world’s best sprinter’, proves in my opinion, just how loud horses’ voices can be.

He won over $9 million in prize money, before deciding, he’d had enough. In his trainer’s words, “inexplicably he stopped. Actually, no… he just didn’t start. You can lead a horse to the line but you can’t make him move.” Chautaqua was given one last chance to race at Moonee Valley.

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Alan Attwood wrote: “The barrier gates clang open. Five horses leap forward. One remains still; and he stands there! He doesn’t come out. He refuses to leave the barrier. Chautaqua hasn’t just refused to start running. He is magnificently immobile. Looking quite pleased with himself. For a few seconds, Tommy Berry, bounces up and down on his back like a kid riding a carousel horse at Luna Park. Chautaqua refuses to come out.”

He was examined and everything came up clean. Chautaqua could run, but he had decided he no longer wanted to race. He now steps out as a show horse. Enjoying learning something new and still having a purpose other than standing in a paddock.

Let’s be honest, everyone has a moody day here and there. Or a day they really don’t feel like going to work. Racehorses are no different. But, from what I have seen, if a horse really doesn’t want to race, they know how to get this message across.

For insight into equine behaviour, it’s also worth looking at Winx. Unlike champion Makybe Diva who was built like an engine, there was nothing physically unique about Winx. Her heart was even scanned to check if it was abnormally large. It wasn’t. But watch Winx before and after she races and you can see her voice. It’s in her body language. She approaches the start line, ears pricked forward in excitement, she always pauses, a moment of stillness to assess the crowd and look around to the finish line. How does she run so fast? Because possibly she knows what she has to do, and she just wants to do it. Post race as she parades back into the mounting yard, the pride in her eyes is unmistakable in my opinion.

Most horses are people pleasers. They are pack animals, much like canines. Through evolution their brains tell them to lead, or to follow a leader. And great happiness can come from a horse and human relationship, much like a working dog and owner.

As I’ve stood nose to nose with my horse post race, feeling its breath in my face, watching its chest heave and sweat roll off its body, I have not seen fear in her eyes, rather elation. The first time Lyrical Girl jumped, the feedback from the track work rider was that she ran back around straight for the gate, wanting to do it again!

She’s currently off track with an injury she caused to herself in her paddock, but that’s a story for another day. And also a point worth taking interest in, if the statistics of injuries and deaths on track in horse racing concerns you. Injuries and deaths in horses are higher than many other species in general. They are one of the only animals unable to vomit and their build of 80 plus kilos on legs skinnier than a human’s is, well, ridiculous.

horse racing australia debate
"As I’ve stood nose to nose with my horse post race, feeling its breath in my face, watching its chest heave and sweat roll off its body, I have not seen fear in her eyes, rather elation." Image: Supplied.
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I am always nervous watching horses start. Especially in a race such as the Melbourne Cup, where the field is large and the stakes are high. But for me, it’s a similar feeling watching Australian surfer Owen Wright paddle back out at Teahupoo, Tahiti. One of the world’s most challenging waves. With his wife and young son watching on, he takes off. Despite months of rehabilitation post a horrific brain injury caused from a wipe-out in Hawaii. He’s living his purpose. These athletes don’t stop paddling out, despite knowing lives have been lost, because they love what they do.

Let's not forget there are also humans on these horses. They also have a choice. If the horse goes down, so does the jockey – does the jockey value their life any less than the next person? A horse is never sent out to track if there’s any doubt in their capabilities.

I believe horses are intelligent enough to understand our cheers of encouragement and the round of applause at the finish line. Which means they also understand words of abuse directed at them. It was devastating to hear how these animals were spoken to by abattoir workers in the 7:30 report.

There are bad eggs in many industries.

But change needs to happen.

Breeders are not responsible for these horses once they are sold. Flashing their stud names on television is not fair to the breeder whom likely hasn’t seen or heard from the horse since it was a yearling. I spent a weekend on a stud farm, Kitchwin Hills, in Scone. To watch first hand how they bred their broodmares and cared for both mothers and foals during birth. I was nothing but impressed with the love shown to these animals. Relief, awe, pride, opportunity for a new life in their hands.

There needs to be a better registrar where horses are tracked from birth into retirement and don’t get lost in the system after numerous sales.

Through previous research I know that there are rules and regulations in place, which should be preventing this fate for racehorses.

There are laws on breeding and these need to be governed so that numbers are capped and bloodlines kept strong and able.

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Let's be realistic again. Some horses are not suitable for rehoming. Just like some dogs need to be euthanised because they aren’t suitable as pets, it is the same with horses. If a horse is not safe around people, it is not safe enough to be alive. Horses need people to survive. The thoroughbred is not a wild species. Some horses, like humans, suffer mental illness and are unsafe. Or have lost their way through chronic injuries.

There needs to be an abattoir. If we are involved, if everything is above board, visual and held accountable, we can demand reports on numbers of horses processed through abattoirs and why. It’s a billion dollar industry, so why can’t a specific abattoir for racehorses be opened in each state by the racing boards in government? Here a small number of horses are rugged, watered, fed and processed individually in a humane way – euthanised by vets. Supported by volunteers.

I think it’s the everyday people working alongside these animals – the strappers, the jockeys, the trainers, their families, who we should be seeking opinions from? Racing is a rich industry that employs so many people. Whereby both typically developing people and people with additional needs work as equals and this is amazing. There are so many great stories of racehorses being rehomed. Where are the programs on these? For me, the conversation is too one-sided.

Culturally this was a sport of kings, but also one for bush folk to come together.

From what I can see the problem with the industry is post-racing. But how do we encourage better practice and responsibility if we #NupToTheCup? Shame won’t change the racing industry, or their purses. If you care, instead head to a track, find yourself a middleman – someone who knows the equine industry and knows racing. Involve yourself, cheer on a horse, reward their hard work and training, and keep pushing for positive change.

To read the other side of the debate:

OPINION: 'They're racing babies to death. Why it's been 13 years since I celebrated Melbourne Cup.'

For more from Liz Cantor, you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter

Liz donated her fee to this piece to Horses Helping Humans. 


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