Should we stop the race that stops the nation?

Horses racing in the 2017 Melbourne Cup. Image: RNZ.

It’s just a horse race, yet the Melbourne Cup is embedded in this country’s cultural psyche; equine race winners’ names holding the same place in history as human sporting legends. But behind the sparkle and pageantry lurks a disturbingly dark reality. Rita Bratovich explores the shine and tarnish of The Cup.

The 2021 Melbourne Cup will mark the 160th time this world famous event has been held. 

For just over three minutes, eyes across the country and across the globe will be fixed on a screen, watching intently, then erupting in spontaneous whoops and cheers as the field enters the final stretch. 

In classrooms, offices, community halls, pubs, TABs and backyards, people will be clutching printed betting tickets for horses they methodically chose, or thin slips of paper bearing the name of the random horse they drew in a sweep. 

The dress code for the day is either fancy dress or very fancy dress – a fusion of New Year’s Eve, high school formal and celebrity wedding. By the end of the day it looks mostly like Halloween; many people will have lost lots of money and all self-respect. 

The vast majority of revellers have no interest in horse racing other than on this one day. What they don’t know – or choose to ignore – is that behind the glamour and merriment is an exceedingly lucrative industry predicated on gambling, ostentation and heinous animal cruelty. 

Since 2013, seven Melbourne Cup starters have died: Cliffsofmoher (2018), Regal Monarch (2016), Red Cadeaux (2015), Admire Rakti (2014), Araldo (2014), Verema (2013) and Anthony Van Dyck, who broke down mid-race last year and was taken away by ambulance to be euthanised. 

Anthony Van Dyck’s death galvanised the burgeoning public animus towards horse racing in general and the Melbourne Cup in particular. It was hard not to be affected by the sight of a horse pulling up during the race then rearing in obvious agony. In a further twist of the screw, it emerged later that Anthony Van Dyck was known to have an injury one month before the Melbourne Cup and was not fully examined for fitness prior to the race. 

This is a clear example of money and prestige taking precedence over the welfare of the animals. 

It’s very difficult to ascertain the total number of horses that have died during the 160 year history of the Melbourne Cup; almost every internet search only yields statistics since 2013 – yet we know that even in the very first race, run in 1861, two horses died. 

According to the DeathWatch Report by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, in the period from 1 August 2020 to 31 July 2021, at least 149 horses died on Australian racetracks.

Apart from deaths, animal welfare groups report that race horses suffer many ailments directly attributable to the sport: stomach ulcers, fractures, injuries caused by reins and bits. Though illegal, the use of jiggers (a small device that delivers an electric shock to a horse) in the industry is still suspected. Horses are often administered drugs either to enhance performance or mask pain during training and racing. 

The Spring Meeting of the Victoria Racing Club – The Cup Day, Samuel Calvert, 1865, print from wood engraving. Image: State Library of Victoria.

If you ever wondered where the expression “tongue-tied” comes from, it’s from the cruel, anachronistic practice of tying the tongue of a horse to its bottom jaw. It’s done to prevent the horse from choking on its own tongue during high exertion or from putting its tongue over the bit to relieve the pain from unrelenting pulling on the reins by a jockey. Tongue-tying is still legal in horse racing.

Many more atrocities associated with horse racing have been documented by animal welfare groups. 

Proponents of horse racing argue that the horses are, in fact, treated like royalty – groomed meticulously, fed well, exercised daily, provided with highest quality equipment, vet care and stabling. This may well be true but it’s consistent with the kind of attention you’d give to a prized possession – an asset. It’s more akin to polishing and tuning a high performance vehicle than lovingly indulging a companion animal. 

“Horses love to run!” is another popular counter-claim. 

#NupToTheCup is trending with many protest events happening on Cup Day. Image: horseracingkills.com.

Indeed they do. But not at full pelt, non-stop around a track for three minutes. Horses can literally run themselves to death. They do so in the wild if they are being pursued by a predator or have been terrified by something. Racing horses are pushed to their limit, often carrying additional handicap weight (aside from the jockey). This puts stress on their heart and lungs which can lead to a number of serious or chronic conditions, and possibly death. 

Horses are not athletes and that oft-cited comparison is invalid. A horse does not choose to compete, nor does it really benefit from its own success. A horse can’t experience the emotional and mental exhilaration felt by a human athlete upon winning an event. A human athlete is not euthanised if they suffer a severe injury. 

The Melbourne Cup stands out from other horse races, not just because of its fame and prestige, but because, for Australians, it comes with long-held traditions, sentimentality, pomp, entertainment and nostalgia. 

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There are many of us of a certain age who remember the small television being wheeled on a trolley into the primary school classroom. Every child had a slip of paper with the name of a horse on it. Lessons were paused while the horses raced. Teachers and nuns cheered, secretly clutching their TAB stubs. Kids cheered because the teachers were cheering. 

The things people cherish about the Melbourne Cup have very little to do with the actual horses. It’s the customs and celebrations we’ve created around the event that make it hard to relinquish. 

Maybe there’s a way to keep the sparkle and pageantry of The Cup without it being a poison chalice for horses.  

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.