November 16th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Extinction Rebellion: So, it's goodnight to us and a big welcome to mega-bucks

EDITORIAL A second chance to secure Australia's future

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Early UK election will be another Brexit vote

CANBERRA OBSERVED Struggle is on not to let censorship have the last word

GENDER POLITICS Children are being given drugs that are dangerous even for elite athletes

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Thoroughbreds are literally racing for their lives

POLITICAL COMMENTARY Tony Abbott continues faithful to the broad Liberal church

MILITARY HISTORY Timor-Leste a free nation 20 years after INTERFET

CLIMATE SCIENCE V XR Is a tipping point close or is the emergency contrived?

RENEWABLE ENERGY Whatever happened to the World Solar Challenge?

ASIAN AFFAIRS How long has China's Red Dynasty really got?

HUMOUR Vote 1 for the Troposphere

MUSIC Genre fatigue: Jazz rock arrived with a bang, left with a whisper

CINEMA Terminator: Dark Fate: The heart that makes us human

CINEMA Ride Like a Girl: Celebrating family, faith and fortitude

BOOK REVIEW Quirky look at grand-scale egoism

BOOK REVIEW Clear critique of flaws of globalism



NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to High Court

South Park Calls Out Transgender Takeover of Women's Sports

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Thoroughbreds are literally racing for their lives

by Colin Teese

News Weekly, November 16, 2019

Horse racing does not usually make it into the pages of News Weekly, though no doubt the “sport” has its followers among the journal’s readership. But what is happening in the sport now reaches deep into matters that touch both economics and social attitudes. The industry is said to be a big part of the economy and a significant employer of what has become highly specialised labour.

This writer starts with a confession. He has been a follower of horse racing. Not, it should be noted, as a bettor, but as a lover of the spectacle, and the horses. I have not been unaware of the industry’s darker side but have chosen, perhaps unwisely, and along with too many others, to overlook its failings.

Even so, I was among those taken aback by the recent ABC program about cruelty to horses (mostly, though not entirely, former racehorses). It should immediately be recognised that these revelations were more about cruelty to animals (horses) than about the certainly questionable and unacceptable practices for dealing with the wastage from horse racing.

What most people – especially those closely associated with the industry – well understand but have preferred to keep under wraps is that most horses bred for racing fail and have to be disposed of in one way or other. Relatively few will find good homes for the rest of their lives, which could be up to a decade or more. As for the rest, well, from the industry’s point of view, let the chips fall where they may.

Most probably it has not always been so. Forty or more years ago, there was not nearly as much racing. Owning a racehorse was something only the rich could afford. Many, if not most, were also substantial property owners with the ability to look after horses after their racing days were behind them.

None of that is any longer the norm, and has not been so for decades. In the past, rich owners might join with a friend or two in racehorse ownership. In the last 25 or so years, the practice has arisen of syndication. Horse trainers or dealers buy horses at sales and sell off tiny shares – as low as one or 2 per cent – to individuals. Any given horse might have 100 or more “owners”.

Thus, a new category of owner­ship has been introduced into the sport, and this has allowed the industry to grow enormously. The horse-breeding industry has ans­wered the challenge. Last year, some 13,000 thoroughbreds were produced.

The argument in favour of the modern model is that horse racing – once the exclusive preserve of the rich – is now open to ordinary people. The man in the street can now afford to own a racehorse, is the proud boast of those interested in promoting horse racing.

True enough, perhaps, if one is prepared to overlook the unintended consequences of this outcome, one aspect of which the recent ABC program made clear.

But the problems of the industry run much deeper – and they extend far beyond the issue of cruelty to animals, bad though that is.

There is much more horse racing than was the case in the past. Today, all over Australia, there are races every day in every state. Sometimes, even more than one race meeting per day. To cater for this demand, many more racehorses are being bred.

Then there is the betting. It should first be said that problems associated with betting excesses are social and extend far beyond horse racing, though racing is part of it. That, however, is a subject well beyond the scope of this article.

Betting has been associated with horse racing from the very beginning. And of course it has always been acknowledged that the betting connection has been the source of many of racing’s darker characteristics. Horses were not always trying to win, and doping of horses to improve performance was widespread.

Much has been done to try to eradicate the worst aspects of these practices. Over the years, prize money for races has been increased massively so that more racehorse owners and trainers now chase prize money rather than bet. This is true especially for the larger and more successful racing stables that dominate the industry.

Accordingly, fewer horses than previously are deliberately prevented from winning. However, there is now, given the larger stake money available, still the temptation for trainers to resort to artificial and illegal stimulants to improve the performance of horses.

It is acknowledged that the industry itself is alert to these possibilities and employs its own professional staff to try to ensure that all races are decided on merit – whatever that may mean. But, try as they may, the regulators are not, and cannot, ever be completely successful in their endeavours. Recent scandals involving the most successful horse trainer in Victoria have demonstrated just how difficult their job is.

Betting may be less of a problem for racing than it once was, in the sense that those betting on horse races can today have greater confidence about the integrity of the sport than was once the case.

Dealing with the problems arising in horse racing as the ABC exposed is, as hinted at earlier, not strictly speaking a problem about horse racing. It is about cruelty to animals (some of which is practised on former racehorses) in certain abattoirs.

If particular abattoirs are allowing animals (racehorses included) to be slaughtered in inhumane circumstances, this is a problem beyond the capacity of the racing industry to solve. State government regulations govern the operation of these establishments and it is now demonstrably clear that these establishments are not being policed.

State governments that allow these premises to continue operating must be held to account for these unsavoury outcomes. If it is beyond either their capacity or willingness to deal with these problems, then perhaps it will be necessary for the commonwealth government to take control. After all, Australia’s international standing could well be on the line.

However, a difficulty remains unresolved, and it is one for which racing administrations must accept full respon­sibility: the matter of how retired or otherwise discarded racehorses are disposed of.

From all the evidence I have been able to discover, the issue does not turn on money – in the sense that the industry could provide the funds to look after discarded racehorses. This being so, why is it not being done?

Alas, there is more to it than money. First, industry spokesmen have tried to avoid responsibility for what is happening by saying they cannot control what happens to horses after owners discard them. Effectively, they are saying that, if owners and trainers want to discard their wastage to slaughter in appalling conditions, the industry is powerless to stop them.

A moment’s reflection will show that this proposition is entirely unacceptable in today’s world. Importantly, it puts ammunition into the hands of the small but vocal minority that wants to see the sport banned. No less important, it is an invitation to government to take entire control of the sport out of the hands of the industry.

Indeed that certainly will be the outcome if the industry leadership persists with its plea that it is powerless to prevent what community standards will not tolerate.

So, the question now becomes less what must be done, but who will do it?

Whatever the answer to that question may be, finding a solution will be no easy task. The first step should be a register of thoroughbreds through which the entire life of an animal can be followed. This, the industry seems to oppose – possibly because it will make them responsible, in a way they are not at present.

That must and will be part of any solution. After that comes the hard bit.

We don’t know how many racehorses become discards each year because of the deficiency of records. But we know that 13,000 new thoroughbreds enter racing each year and the attrition rate is enormous.

A reasonable stab might be as many a 4,000 – perhaps more. The popular view is that they can all be agisted in lovely green paddocks for the rest of their lives – which could be for the next 12 to 15 years. Four thousand a year for 12 to 15 years, indefinitely into the future! Are we prepared to set aside the arable land for such a purpose? I think not.

The other solution is that the unwanted animals are euthanised – that is, 4,000 or so each year. Assuming that this can be done in completely humane ways, the question then arises, will community attitudes tolerate a sport with this level of animal wastage?

Could the sport be allowed to continue on this basis? Would the community tolerate it? And what about the sponsors upon whom present levels of industry prosperity depend? Would they continue to support such an industry?

Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.

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