Thoroughbred racing and a sense of identity aren’t the most comfortable of bedfellows. To the converted, racing is the sport of kings, where man and beast unite in a battle that is poetry in motion. To its detractors it’s barely a sport at all, rather a business and not a particularly honourable one at that.
On one day of the year, however, identity seems less of a problem. On the first Tuesday each November, Australians provide a fervent reminder that they’re the world’s biggest gamblers by splurging on the Melbourne Cup. In Victoria, everyone gets the day off work. For a horse race.
And it’s very big business. In 2018, wagering giant Tabcorp held more than $170m in turnover on the Flemington card – and $115m on the Cup alone – across its TAB and UBET brands. This year, it expects turnover across the eight key days of spring racing, which includes the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival, to reach $1bn.
“The Melbourne Cup is an iconic event and one of the world’s great races,” Nicholas Tzaferis, Tabcorp’s general manager of corporate communications, told Guardian Australia. “The Cup is the largest single betting event for our TAB business. We estimate more than three million Australians will bet with TAB on the Melbourne Cup.”
For a sport that craves, but seldom receives, mainstream exposure, racing has long subsisted on the truism that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The industry has had its share of scandals over the years, from doping and ring-ins to jockeys betting on other horses and most things in between. But racing is nothing if not resilient. Despite issues of integrity that could and should pose a serious existential threat, racing somehow manages to come out the other side and retain its niche as an accepted, even treasured, part of Australian culture.
But times are changing. While some sections of society might be prepared to turn a blind eye to the carry-ons of the sport’s ratbag element, the matter of animal welfare is proving harder to stomach. The spate of equine deaths on Melbourne Cup day in recent years – since 2013, six horses have perished at Flemington on Australian racing’s biggest day – has brought the issue into sharp focus, prompting the #NupToTheCup movement and a general increase in awareness of the wellbeing of racehorses. It’s still the race that stops a nation, but now it divides it.
The stakes are even higher following the ABC’s expose on the mistreatment and mass slaughter of retired racers at Australian knackeries. Racing Australia claims around 34 ex-racehorses annually, or less than 1% of the population, end up at an abattoir, but the ABC investigation suggests the figure is some way north of this.
“The racing industry has hidden behind bogus studies they commissioned and data collected from a compulsory retirement form,” said Elio Celotto, of the coalition for the protection of racehorses. “They have now been proven wrong and must own up to the fact that they have a serious welfare problem. We estimate the real number to be more than 10,000.”
Racing administrators shifted promptly to damage control, promising to weed out the wrongdoers. “The Commission advocates strongly for the welfare of all racing animals and invites the racing community and the public to report racing animal welfare concerns for investigation,” Queensland Racing Integrity commissioner Ross Barnett said.
In New South Wales, it is prohibited for horses to be sent to a knackery if they were “predominantly domiciled” in that state. “If it’s happening we will put the full force of the law against them because they’re breaking the rules of racing,” Racing NSW chief executive Peter V’landys said.
V’landys, for his part, identified animal welfare as racing’s biggest threat some time ago, introducing the above mentioned rule and devoting a percentage of prize money to equine welfare, among other initiatives. And now Racing Victoria is following suit, last week announcing a $25m program to ensure the welfare of racehorses from the cradle to the grave. A key element of the commitment is to support a national responsible breeding campaign “to reduce the number of thoroughbreds that end up with no options”.
These are steps in the right direction, but more is wanted. Last week, Fairfax journalist Peter FitzSimons criticised V’landys for saying he was proud of Racing NSW’s animal welfare program, suggesting the administrator should give away his role as ARL commission chairman to focus on racing. “He will, and should, have his hands completely full sorting out the atrocities of racing.”
Channel 7’s Bruce McAvaney also weighed in. “As a small-time owner it made me feel ashamed. And not to have known is not good enough,” McAvaney said of the ABC report.
The effects are being felt elsewhere. Birdcage regular Megan Gale is this year boycotting the Melbourne Cup, following singer Taylor Swift and actor Lana Condor to withdraw from the event. Both Swift and Condor cited scheduling issues, but the social media backlash over their intended appearances at Flemington could not be missed.
These are interesting times for horse racing. The exposure it so desires it now has in spades, but not for the reasons it might have had in mind.
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