Horse racing: The hidden cruelty revealed
- Published: 14 May 2011
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Jumps racing has been cropping up in the news after a series of track deaths in the UK and Australia. But while track deaths are problematic for racing’s image, the fate of countless other racehorses is hidden from the public, writes Susannah Waters.
15 May 2011
While racegoers clutched betting slips and peered toward the finish line that sunny afternoon, horses Ornais and Dooneys Gate lay away from their gaze, broken and dying behind swiftly assembled screens.
The former Grand National contenders were concealed from view after suffering horrific injuries in the notoriously dangerous event, held on a long course covering 30 challenging jump fences. But the odds were stacked heavily against all 40 starting horses: only 19 were able to finish the gruelling race.
April marked the commencement of the UK’s annual Aintree race meeting, featuring the Grand National event, and the beginning of the controversial jumps racing seasons in two Australian states.
Jumps racing has long been steeped in controversy owing to its inordinately high mortality rate. This brand of racing, which requires thoroughbred horses to leap over a succession of fences, is estimated to be up to 20 times more fatal than flat horse racing.
The fences claimed victims early in the Victorian and South Australian jumps seasons, where five horses died after suffering traumatic on-track injuries within a four-week period. Australian jumps racing was plunged into further scandal when a horse leapt into a crowd during one of Victoria’s showpiece events, resulting in seven spectators being hospitalised.
Ward Young, Communications Manager for the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses in Victoria, is hopeful that the recent incidents will be a catalyst for a final ban on jumps racing in Australia.
“While the racing industry and government can put on a brave face, the continuing deaths in jumps racing will wear them very thin and a tipping point will be reached where they decide ‘enough is enough’”, he tells The Scavenger.
Witnessing a horse’s death during a jumps event two years ago had a profound impact on Young, and strengthened his commitment to organise against jumps racing.
Although the sizable on-track body count has provoked a sustained campaign to end jumps racing in Australia, the high fatalities are simply acknowledged – and by all appearances, accepted – as inherent to jumps within racing circles.
Rodney Rae, president of Australian Jumping Racing, recently conceded to an Australian newspaper that “there hasn't been a jumps racing season where we haven't had a fatality”. A shocking 13 horses were killed on Australian jumps tracks in 2009.
It is reported that three horses die on average at the three-day UK Aintree meeting each year. Bolstered by outrage at the recent deaths, a call to ban Aintree’s Grand National event has garnered extensive support.
More race horse deaths
But jumps racing does not exist in isolation, and should be viewed firmly within the context of horse racing as a whole. While more prevalent, racehorse deaths are not exclusive to jumps racing events – nor to the racecourse.
Since 2007, UK group Animal Aid has been recording all British on-track racehorse deaths in all types of racing. The group’s Race Horse Death Watch indicates that 68 thoroughbreds died on British racecourses as a result of racing injuries over the first four months of this year.
While it does not factor in the deaths of racehorses away from the track, it provides a rare insight into the perilous nature of horse racing. Countless causes of death are listed, including descriptions such as “injured hind leg – destroyed”, “fell – broke neck” and “collapsed and died after race”.
Late last year, it was reported by the US. Jockey Club that approximately 1,500 thoroughbreds died due to injury on US racecourses in the preceding two-year period. However, independent research conducted in 2008 revealed that many deaths went unreported by racing organisations within the country, and indicated a staggering over three horse deaths per day on US racecourses.
While these deaths highlight the dangers of racing events, they are in fact just the tip of the iceberg. Track deaths are a more visible display of horse racing’s often more covert exploitation of horses.
The screens which obscured the view of the horses killed at the Grand National are somewhat emblematic of racing’s ever-present dilemma: they demonstrate that lurking beyond its carefully constructed image of glamour and prestige, it is an industry with much to hide.
Horses slaughtered for human consumption and pet food
A rarely publicised and unpalatable fact is that many ex-racehorses, and many horses reared for the purposes of racing, end up on dinner tables in Europe and Japan. Countless others are condemned to the pet food industry.
Young says that in the past, prominent figures in the racing industry denied ex-racehorses were sent to slaughter. He says that now it is “indisputable” and a “standard practice” of the industry.
Far from retiring on idyllic green pastures, many horses are sold to slaughterhouses and knackeries once they are deemed to have exhausted their usefulness within racing.
“Retired” may evoke images of old and unsteady horses, but those discarded by the racing industry and sold to slaughter in Australia can be as young as two years old. A 2006 British report claimed that the majority of racehorses there are killed before their fifth birthdays. The normal life expectancy of a thoroughbred is around 30 years of age.
Official government figures state that up to 40,000 “failed or retired sport horses” and “feral” horses are killed yearly in Australia, specifically for the lucrative horse meat trade. However a horse meat industry insider last year said that 50,000 – 70,000 horses are slaughtered annually.
Australia is a large exporter of horse meat to overseas markets, and while it is difficult to ascertain precise numbers, evidence suggests that failed and former racehorses may comprise as many as 60% of all horses slaughtered in this industry.
There are several reasons why so many thoroughbreds are prematurely cast off from the racing industry. A central factor is the sheer overabundance of horses being bred for racing.
As the world’s largest breeder of thoroughbreds, there are around 1.3 million thoroughbred horses in the U.S., with up to 50,000 foals born there every year. Meanwhile, Australia is placed as the second largest thoroughbred breeder with over 17,000 foals born annually – a significant number considering the much smaller human population here.
With masses of potential racehorses at the racing industry’s disposal, horses can be replaced quickly once they cease turning a profit.
Blinded by dollar signs
Much of the problem for racehorses stems from the way they are viewed within the racing industry. The industry promotes a culture where horses are regarded as expendable products and commodities – to be bought, sold, and ultimately discarded.
A racehorse’s value is tied directly to monetary considerations. These horses are generally not valued on their own terms, as sentient individuals. They are instead prized as profit-generating units of labour.
Racehorses’ status as replaceable commodities is entrenched in the racing industry. The language frequently used by members of the racing fraternity to refer to racehorses affirms this.
Comments likening the danger of horse racing to the risks taken by humans in sporting activities are common, and suggestive of a cavalier attitude towards horse deaths.
South Australian Thoroughbred Racing chairwoman Frances Nelson recently described horse racing as a “competitive sport” in which “accidents will happen”.
She added: "No one likes to see that happen, but in any competitive sport you will have a level of risk. The same occurs with human beings - look at footballers, look at athletes".
Her statement echoes that of David McCammon, whose horse Killyglen ran – and fell, rendering him unable to complete the race – in the recent Grand National.
“In every other sport there are dangers, just take motorcycling and car racing. You know the risk you are taking with the horses but they have been bred for racing”, McCammon said.
The owner of Ornais, the horse who died after his neck was broken in the same event, referred to Ornais’ death as “unfortunate”, saying “we all take chances in our life”.
The parallels between horses’ involvement in racing and human participation in sports is, in reality, extremely tenuous.
The fundamental difference is the issue of consent. While jockeys and motorsport racers can provide informed consent for their participation, this cannot logically be claimed for horses.
Some contend that horses “love” to race, and that if they did not wish to, they would simply refuse to leave the starting gate - as horses sometimes do. This argument not only confuses horses’ participation with a willingness to race, but also ignores the fact that racehorses are extensively trained to be subordinate and obey commands.
This enforced subservience is an essential feature of the racing industry.
Comments made by the trainer for Dooneys Gate, the horse who died after breaking his back at the Grand National, display a corresponding attitude. Willie Mullins referred to the deceased horse as having been “a good servant to us”.
Away from the pomp of racing events, a racehorse’s everyday life can involve the monotony of hours of confinement and a vulnerability to health conditions such as gastric ulcers, which affects up to 93% of Australian racehorses. This affliction is largely caused by stress and an unnatural diet.
Young believes that aspects of cruelty hidden from the public are fundamental to the preservation of racing and its glossy façade.
“Most people will never witness horses who are kept in their racing stables the size of a standard bedroom for 22 hours a day, or see the terrible sight of ex-racehorses who are no longer profitable waiting to receive a bullet in the head at a knackery”, he says.
The relentless pursuit to protect its image is symptomatic of an industry with a lot at stake: over $14.3 billion is poured into racing by the Australian public annually, while in excess of £12 billion is wagered by the British public. More than £250 million was gambled on 2011 Grand National day alone.
Money is also often diverted into racing by governments. In Australia, the Victorian government has pledged to inject $2 million into jumps racing over the next four years.
But beyond the alluring sparkle of big money, exists an immense stable of misery: where many of the once-glorified winners, the fleetingly-feted champions, the old odds-on favourites, the outmoded outsiders, and the former 100-to-ones, are consigned.
Fancy stage names now cast aside, they are reduced to a number and forgotten, while the conveyor belt of fresh horses incites a new wave of cash-coloured dreams.
Susannah Waters is an associate editor at the Scavenger.
Images from top: Horse in knackery awaiting slaughter, courtesy of Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses; Java Star, courtesy of Uproar; Horses killed for meat; and Ledgers Dream, both courtesy of Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.