explainer

Ahead of the 2019 Melbourne Cup, here’s the reality of horse racing in Australia.

Is horse racing cruel?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

But that question is gaining momentum alongside the hashtag #NupToTheCup, and stems from concerns that have been simmering since about 2014 when two race horses died after the Cup was run, including a race favourite.

As women in their fanciest fascinators and men in their suits sipped champagne trackside, to some, “Australia’s greatest race” started to feel different.

Admire Rakti collapsed in his stall and died from a suspected heart attack minutes after placing last in the 2014 race. His death was followed by seventh placed Araldo who broke a leg after being spooked by a spectator. He was later euthanised.

Watch a snippet of ABC’s investigation into the racing industry. Post continues after video.

Video by ABC

Their deaths marked the start of a shift in attitude towards the billion-dollar industry – one that’s more perceivable year on year as celebrities and punters choose to turn their heads.

In 2015, Red Cadeaux was euthanised after running the Cup, in 2017 it was Regal Monarch and in 2018 it was Cliffs Of Moher who was euthanised after suffering a shoulder fracture.

2018 Melbourne Cup Day
Cliffs Of Moher broke down in the first lap in race 7 of the Melbourne Cup 2018 Image: Michael Dodge/Getty.
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But these racing fatalities are much more common than once a year. The Melbourne Cup is generally the day when it's highlighted, but the true extent of deaths is put into perspective in a report from the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

"119 racehorses were killed on track (or soon after racing) between August 2017 and July 2018," it revealed last year.

On average that boils down to one horse every three days.

Emily Rice, spokesperson from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), described the horse's deaths as "a stomach churning mess of tangled limbs, fractured bones, and broken spines".

But "horses being run to death," as PETA puts it, is not all the racing industry is facing criticism for.

The issue of "wastage" has long been something animal rights organisations have been trying to shine a light on. It is the term referring to horses being bred for racing that do not make it into the sport, or are lost from the industry when they are no longer able to race.

This year the ABC’s 7.30 revealed that thousands of healthy thoroughbred race horses were being shipped to their deaths at abattoirs where they were being killed for human consumption.

At a Queensland facility, 300 racehorses were killed in 22 days. They had won a total of almost $5 million in prize money.

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In graphic vision, many of the horses in the ABC investigation were shown being abused by abattoir workers — whipped, kicked and punched, and electric prods used on their genitalia.

The investigation was two years in the making, and released mere weeks before the biggest day on the 2019 horse racing calendar.

Since the program has aired, Racing Victoria has announced a new $25 million equine welfare initiative that will deliver more post-racing opportunities and audits on the industry. Queensland has also launched an independent investigation into its state's practices.

But further to the ABC's exposé, PETA revealed in June that some 3000 Australian horses had been sold to the South Korean racing industry where they were slaughtered for meat.

"Forcing horses to run at breakneck speeds while being whipped is not worthy of celebration. The horse racing industry gambles with horses' lives. Those who survive to the end of their racing days, which comes when they're still quite young, are often discarded like used betting slips," Rice told Mamamia.

Then there's the training techniques and actual physicality of racing which is a concern for animal rights activists.

Darren Weir was known prior to his arrest as Victoria's leading horse trainer. Earlier this year he and two other men were charged with animal cruelty - accused of using "jiggers," an electrical device used to shock horses.

The 49-year-old, who trained the 2015 Melbourne Cup winner Prince of Penzance, was charged with a total of nine offences, including three counts of engaging in the torturing, abusing, overworking and terrifying of thoroughbred racehorses and three counts of causing unreasonable pain or suffering.

A 2001 study of racehorses found that 89 per cent had stomach ulcers, and many of the horses had deep, bleeding ulcers within eight weeks of the commencement of their training.

A 2015 University of Melbourne research paper looked at the effects of the exertion expended by a racehorse and found that 50 per cent had blood in their windpipe, while 90 per cent had blood in their lungs.

Research published in the journal Preventative Veterinary Medicine suggested that racing a two-year-old horse puts it at greater risk because the horse's skeletal system is still immature and not ready for the stress of the racing world. In Australia, racing two year olds is commonplace. "Typically a thoroughbred's racing career starts at the age of two," states Racing Victoria's website.

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2019 Melbourne Cup Parade
Protests are underway in Melbourne. Image: Getty.

Use of "tongue ties" in Australian horse racing has also come under fire, with limited data showing it actually improves racing speeds.

The strap immobilises a horse's tongue by attaching it to the lower jaw with problems like lacerations, bruising, swelling and stress linked to the practice.

In 2017, research showed that tongue ties were being used in 20 per cent of all Australian race starts.

Then there's whipping, which is said to be important for safety - to encourage and steer a horse. Under Racing Australia's rules a jockey can use a padded whip on a horse five times before the final 100 metres of a race - after that point there's no limit.

But six-time Melbourne Cup-winning owner Lloyd Williams doesn't think it's okay, telling ABC's 7:30, "The industry now needs to realise whips need to be withdrawn very soon."

Ahead of the Melbourne Cup this year, there is again talk of protests and boycotting with Megan Gale among the high profile names pulling out of the 2019 racing carnival. Last month US singer Taylor Swift and Lana Condor also pulled their attendance, both citing 'scheduling' issues.

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Plenty of businesses are hosting horse-free events, with #NupToTheCup picnics, fundraisers and performances being held across the country to offer punters alternatives.

But Melbourne Cup is big business and despite the criticism, it's booming - with this year offering the biggest amount of prize money yet: $8 million dollars.

There's no doubt, however, that momentum against cruelty in the horse racing industry is growing.

In 2019, it's stronger than ever before.

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