Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A week ago 9% died

This time last week I was swarmed with emails about Melbourne Cup day. Did I want in on the sweep? Tickets for the sweep are selling fast! We're almost sold out! We've opened up another sweep! Race in an hour, would you like to buy a ticket?

I sent one reply naming myself a morally objecting boring person. But since I was on a generic mailing list, I kept getting them. Thankfully the person behind the emails was polite enough not to ask me in person whilst asking everyone around me. I respect that, and personally I wouldn't have bothered to unpack a mailing list and remove one name every time I sent out and update.

I had planned to boycott the event entirely. But then one of my lovely co-workers walked past with a fruit platter and chocolate fondue. I figured I could morally object whilst being in the room, after all there was fondue!

Now granted I haven't watched horse racing before. I personally find it pretty boring, which seems to be the prevailing opinion unless you have a bet. Even half of the attendees of the races don't seem to care. The fascinators, champagne and chance to rub elbows with trust fund babies and millionaires is just as big a draw card as the horses themselves. But even before the race started, it felt off.

I know horses love to run, and if a jockey falls off, most horses will finish the race of their own accord (and generally they win too) but loving to run doesn't mean loving the race. Watching seven officials wrestle a horse into the starting gates doesn't sit well with me. Watching another horse buck and shy away from the gates makes me uncomfortable. I recognise that these horses are spirited, but when most of them eagerly walk in, seeing a horse shying away makes me queasy.

I'm not going to go off on a rant about how horse racing should be banned. Despite emotions running high, I believe that everyone involved with these animals cares for them. There may be owners out there who only care about their horses in terms of the money they make, but there is still some level of affection. But the industry can be cleaned up.

9% of the participants in 'the race that stopped the nation' died. You can argue that human marathon runners die of heart attacks, but we choose to run those distances. A horse of Admire Rakti's size has never won the Melbourne Cup. Experts were questioning his ability to run that race. I believe he was one of the horses fighting to stay out of the gates pre-race.

I would have been happier watching this race if whips were banned entirely. You can read the actual rules from the Australian Racing Board, or the opinions of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, however if think the RSPCA summarises it best:

Jockeys can use the whip in a forehand manner five times before the final 100m but not in consecutive strides. Whips can be used to slap a horse down the shoulder or in a backhand manner at the jockey’s discretion throughout the entire race. Over the last 100m of a race, whips can be used at a jockey’s discretion which essentially means horses can be whipped most when they are at their most fatigued and least able to respond.
The Australia Racing Board (ARB) rules actually specify the last 200m of a race, but the document is not dated.

Australia requires whips to be padded, however this level of impact is typical
When I first researched horse racing last year, it was not after the high-profile death of two horses, one of whom was the race favourite. I found a completely different picture. One that specified the use of a whip was to cause the leg muscle to twitch, powering the horse forward. In the aftermath of the deaths, I can't find this information anymore. But being a little older and wiser, I have to wonder, how is cause a muscle to twitch helping? Surely an animal that weighs over 450kg, running at full sprint should be in full control of it's legs. I've had muscle spasms, and I've had niggly twitches in my leg. They were uncomfortable and distracting sitting still. Having a horse kick unevenly and (to the horse) unexpectedly, it's surprising there aren't more broken legs.
As with the ARD rules, whips are predominately used at the end of the race. Most horses will sprint out of the gate and then slow as they get tired. Naturally they run as fast as they can to get away from the Scary Thing, and then slow. Part of a jockeys role is to ensure the horse doesn't overwork itself at the start of the race. A great jockey such as Scobie Breasley can win races against younger, fitter jockeys with horsemanship, rather than violence. 
Whipping is banned in Norway, severely restricted in the UK and roundly condemned by every expert on the subject. It's time Australia had the courage to stand up, and let the jockeys strike if they want.

Admire Rakti wasn't the only horse to die last week (I firmly believe that whipping played a part in his death, even if the inquisition stated otherwise). Araldo was spooked by a child waving a flag and tried to leap a barrier, shattering his cannon bone. Somehow, despite everyone who has every seen a pony at a fair knowing that horses are skittish animals, this child managed to spook a prize horse into an act that ultimately killed him. Let's look at that for a second:
  • Race day organisers - you let the crowd get that close? I was taught better manners around horses, and I only ever rode school horses. A bomb could go off and they wouldn't flinch (but apparently an emu standing on the side of the road was a good reason to skip 2 metres sideways and try and throw me)
  • Parents - don't get me started on parenting as a whole, but a day at the races and you didn't teach your little rugrat basic manners? Just more proof that a day at that races is less about the horses, and more about drinking champers and wearing funny hats.
So the authority figures have failed here. Racing thoroughbreds are notoriously high-strung, remember the one bucking and fighting to stay out the starting gates? So why isn't there a little more courtesy to their skittish natures?

A crowd of excitable people and (possibly) flash photography, what could go wrong?
I've never been to Flemington, but my next question is this, why are the stalls so exposed? It's possibly a members only area, but the video footage of Admire Rakti collapsing shows a reasonable number of very unofficial people meandering past.

Most of these people are probably media, but why is this area even accessible to the public?
I guess in the end I'm calling for a little more respect and compassion. We de-cry animal circuses for pushing lions, tigers and other exotic animals into doing unnatural things, but not the horse racing industry. I'm not talking about the race itself, which should be a natural expression of joy. But beating a tired animal to urge a tiny bit more speed out of it for the amusement of people who are barely watching? Letting noisy, obnoxious, ignorant crowds gather so close to these skittish creatures? That is disrespect.

I'm not an idealist. I know that horse racing keeps these beautiful animals in the public eye, when there are so few places left for them in our compact urban lifestyles and I'm not going to call for a ban in racing altogether. But I think 'the race that stops a nation, where fortunes are won and lost' could show a little more respect for the animals doing the work.

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