The race that stops the nation, also killed this horse today.

Is this animal cruelty?

It’s the ‘event that stops a nation’. Workplaces crack out the champers at 3pm; productivity comes to a standstill.

And that’s for the staff who even bother to show up – more sickies are chucked on Melbourne Cup Day than any other throughout the year.

The Melbourne Cup: arguably Australia’s biggest annual sporting event. There’s glitz, and glamour, gorgeous dresses, sparkly jewelry and good wines. There’s also the grim reality: The lives of the horses. Or more specifically, the lives that are lost.

Horse racing is not the standard vision of animal cruelty that many of us have been trained to recognise through RSPCA advertisements. There are no squalid kennels, or puppies choked by collars that are too small. The horses are well cared for. Their coats are glossy, their eyes are clear; their muscles ripple as they thunder down the track. They look like the epitome of perfect animal health.

But once the race is over – once the horse no longer has a purpose – there is a darker side to the industry that the cameras aren’t around to film.

Today, a horse running in the Melbourne Cup – who you would’ve watched barreling down the track, its coat slick with sweat – was euthanised after the race. The horse’s name was Verema.

Verema dropped out of the race at about the halfway mark, and it said to have snapped a large bone in the lower leg. Victoria Racing Club stewards confirmed that the horse had been put down, shortly after the race.

And Verema is not the only one to have had a less than noble retirement after competing in the Melbourne Cup. The 33 knackeries across Australia will slaughter between 22-32,000 horses every year. 40 per cent of those horses, are racehorses. The Coalition for the Protection of racehorses estimates that 18,000 ex-racers are killed every year.

Many horses are killed – and counted as ‘wastage’ – after injuring themselves during a race. When they break a leg at such speeds the bone can fracture into many pieces – making it almost impossible for a vet to adequately fix. If the vet cannot fix the break, it means the horse cannot race again; this makes the horse ‘uneconomic’ to keep around.

Varema. (Image from Andrew Day on Twitter.)

Activists have identified many other problems with horseracing. The thoroughbreds being trained to race are typically kept in stables where they receive little mental stimulation.

Without room to move, they can develop ‘behaviours’ (like the sad elephants you see pacing backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards in the zoo) biting fences or even themselves repeatedly.


The diet that racehorses are fed to enhance performance means that they are particularly susceptible to gastric ulcers.

During training and competitions, many horses suffer from fractured bones, dislocated joints, and torn ligaments and tendons.

Exertion during races means that almost half of racehorses have suffered bleeding in their windpipe – and a University of Melbourne study found that 90 per cent bleed deeper in the lungs.

And all this is without even mentioning the whips.

Talking about the animal cruelty of horseracing – on Melbourne Cup Day no less – isn’t exactly a popular opinion. It might get you called a ‘killjoy’. Or ‘un-Australian’. And the people who participate in the industry resent the accusation most of all. So many of the people involved in horseracing – the trainers, the breeders, the jockeys – genuinely love horses.

You can see it when they talk about their wins; you can even see it when they talk about their losses. You can see the love they have for the creatures. But that doesn’t change the fact that horseracing could be called animal cruelty.

It can feel fruitless to complain, given that it seems unlikely that ‘the event that stops the nation’ will itself ever stop. The Cup generates an audience of 700 million ever year, and creates over a billion dollars in taxes every year. But that doesn’t change that it could be called animal cruelty.

There are so many things to love about Melbourne Cup Day. The chance to dress up. The fact that it’s the one time a year when you can wear a fascinator on the street, and nobody will judge you for your ostentatious sartorial choices. The fact that workplaces come together. The BBQs, the champagne, the thrill of participating in an office sweep and cheering whenever ‘your’ horse looks like it might pull to the front of the pack – even for a moment.

But that doesn’t change the fact that in my book: horseracing is animal cruelty.

Vale Verema.

If you would like to learn more – or make a difference – please visit The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses or visit Animals Australia and Pledge to Never Bet on Cruelty.

Do you think horseracing counts as animal cruelty? Or do you think the Melbourne Cup is just a bit of fun? What do you think could be done to regulate the industry, to ensure that the lives of horses are saved? 

Edited on 6.11.13 regarding number of racehorses killed each year.