Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Race That Stops the Nation

We've just had running of the Melbourne Cup in Australia. It's known here as the race that stops the nation and, as you will gather from that, it's a big deal. The state of Victoria, where the race is run on the first Tuesday in November as part of the Spring Racing Carnival, has a public holiday on the day, there are celebratory lunches held across the country where people gather to listen or watch the Cup and workplaces run 'sweeps' where the horses' names are randomly drawn and participants put a small amount into a pool with whoever draws the winning horse taking the pool. Even people who never bet at other times are likely to put a small bet on. The race is only part of it. There is a huge emphasis on fashion with a fashion parade as well. And that's the good part, particularly when the winner is an outsider as happened this year - even more special this time because it was the first ever a woman jockey had ridden the winner.

So it's glamorous and exciting. Right? Well, yes, in some ways it is but I feel somewhat conflicted about it for a number of reasons. There are the human costs. Horse racing is a dangerous activity where jockeys can be and are injured, often severely. Michelle Payne, this year's winning jockey, had recently spent 15 months recovering from a brain injury and broken arms, legs and shoulder injuries are common. Another problem is the way many of those attending the race meeting drink far too much. The result is not pretty and sometimes dangerous. Then there's the issue of betting with much advertising of on-line betting firms who think that putting a very brief tag end exhortation to bet responsibly is enough to fulfil their responsibilities not to encourage those who are addicted to gambling.

And then there's something that's rarely talked about - the potential harm to the horses. Personally I don''t like to see horses being whipped - it's one of the reasons I don't go to the races - but there is another problem. In 2014 two horses died at the Melbourne Cup, one from a heart attack in his stall immediately after the race and another, spooked by a flag following the race, kicked a fence shattering a leg. This year Red Cadeaux, a ten year old and very popular, crowd pleasing gelding, finished the race with an injury to his fetlock.  This horse is one of the lucky ones because the injury can be treated - unlike a shattered leg bone which, given the weight of a racehorse (around half a tonne) and that they need to weight bear on all four legs to support themselves, is almost always a cause for euthanasia. Red Cadeaux is obviously much loved by his connections and is to be retired but it still begs the question as to whether we really have the handling of racehorses right.

I'm not an expert on horses but it seems to me that we have perhaps gone too far in breeding horses for racing by favouring animals with light leg bones which makes them at risk of shattering a leg. Racehorses are beautiful and very fast - but perhaps we need a rethink about their well being. To me it's a bit like the pedigree dogs bred for looks which cause health issues like protruding eyes which dry out or pushed in noses that make breathing difficult. They may be very appealing to our eyes but is it worth the animal's discomfort or, in the case of a racehorse, the risk of serious injury? I don't know the answer but I'd be pleased to hear what you think.


Jo said...

With regard to the Jockey part, have you ever read any of Dick Francis' books. He used to be a jockey and then once he retired he started to write. He is no longer with us, but his books were predominantly about racing, in fact steeplechasing was what he did. Jockeys love to ride. Although they ride for money, many, if not all, would ride for nothing they love it so much. Another thing, horses like to run and enjoy the race, but, you are probably right about breeding them for light leg bones. I don't actually know about that. As for gambling, people are going to do that no matter what. If they are addicted, just going to a race is not going to make any difference. The same with drinking, it just makes it more noticeable.

Helen V. said...

I have read some books by Dick Francis, Jo, and enjoyed them and I do understand how much jockeys love to ride and nothing is going to stop them wanting to ride. I have ridden a horse - though not in anything approaching racing and it was a long time ago - and that feeling of power is intoxicating, much like driving at speed. The issue, though, is more about what we look for in breeding racehorses. Many jockey injuries are due to a problem with the horse and maybe if we bred the horses more appropriately there would be fewer injuries.
You're right about heavy drinking and gambling. They will always be with us but somehow events like Cup Day seem to bring out the worst in some people and they're the ones who attract attention.