Horse racing junkies and animal welfare activists often clash, yet each proclaims to have the horses’ best interests at heart, with love for the muscle-toned speedsters at the centre of all they do.
Both agree that horse racing will never be free of death or injury, with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) animal welfare general manager Martin Burns saying fatalities can’t be ruled out.
“There’s an element of risk because its a challenging and high paced sport with large animals, so where you’ve got those factors there will always be risk,” he says.
The billion-dollar racing industry industry treats horses as if they were disposable commodities, SAFE for Animals New Zealand head of campaigns Marianne Macdonald says.
* Drivers fined for whip use
* Case for pushing horse racing
* Anti-racing activists on their high horse
* Top jockey slammed with Cup suspension
* Stable staff devastated
* Cup bosses to probe high death rate
* Abandon the Melbourne Cup
“Every animal-loving Kiwi agrees that animals shouldn’t be dying for entertainment. It’s time for horse racing to be put out to pasture,” she says.
“It’s impossible to make it safe when these animals are running at such speeds, bunched together or jumping over large fences, and whipped to push them even faster when they’re tiring.”
When a horse is put down in a high profile race, as the ill-fated The Cliffsofmoher was in the Melbourne Cup, the fallout makes a divorce court look friendly.
The Irish stayer was the sixth horse to die in the historic race since 2013. He broke a shoulder, with millions watching on TV.
Marianne Macdonald with Monty, a rescued thoroughbred.
And the Great Race highlighted another vexed issue, with six jockeys fined for excessive use of the whip as they chased the richest stayers’ prize in Australasian racing.
Awapuni trainer Lisa Latta says those being fined were under huge pressure to win.
“It is a race worth a lot of money and six jockeys got fined because they’re all trying, it is competitive pressure. They are trying to give their horse every chance.”
Activists have long called for horse racing ban, while fans of the thundering hooves say the equine speedsters are well looked after, love racing, and while accidents happen, it’s not that often.
Some – not only welfare advocates – argue the whip has no effect on performance. Racing has curtailed its use, but still whips remain. And still jockeys under pressure to win use them to the limit, and beyond.
After battle-upon-battle between the pro and anti horse racers, resolve is unlikely.
While the horse racing industry, both harness and thoroughbred, says its is doing its best to ensure animal safety, the number of horses who meet an early end continues to rise.
Statistics show a steady increase from 2011, with slightly fewer than one horse in a thousand starts not making it back to their stable after a race.
Manawatu jockey, Zinjete Moki, has been riding horses for over a decade. Experience tells her if a horse doesn’t want to race, it won’t.
Like many in the industry, she holds a firm belief racehorses are born to run.
Like athletes, they are wired to train to peak performance and compete to the brink of breaking point, if it means winning.
A good horse hates to lose, she says. And it loves to win. In her eyes there is no animal welfare issue.
“No I don’t think it’s cruel. It’s just, they are 500 kilogram animals. You can’t make them do something they don’t want to do. I believe horses are made to ride. You know they’ve got that fight built in to them.”
Dismounting Got the Call, fresh from a race at Awapuni in Palmerston North, Moki pats the mare affectionately.
Equine veins are bulging, manes are dripping with sweat, muscles are twitching as the horses make their way off the track and back to the stables.
Moki laughs at these observations.
“Yeah, they have just gone for a run. A two kilometre run in the space of two minutes.”
Panting heavily, the horses are checked by a vet who stands behind the fence. All appear to be passed as in good health.
On race day, physical examination is done while horses walk around the birdcage. There is no one-on-one time with the vet. There is a schedule to keep.
After a race, a thoroughbred can develop an exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage in the lungs, caused by exertion. It’s so common the afflicted are referred to as “bleeders”.
Independent research says more than 50 per cent of race horses experience bleeding, which is one of the main causes for fatalities.
The on call vet says actual figures are much higher. She says there is no proof of the long-term harm to a horse’s health with the smaller bleeds, as there have been no studies
“It’s debatable I suppose … definitely your big bleeds, that can lead to sudden death.”
NZTR rules state if blood is seen coming out a horse’s nose, the jockey and trainer are given a warning. Twice and the horse is considered retired.
Tape over the horse’s nose is a preventative measure, taken optionally.
The vet – who wishes not to be named – has witnessed several horse deaths at a racecourse.
Also a horse owner, she says more time with the horse before and after racing could potentially help pick up heart abnormalities that can lead to death.
Racing trainers are better educated on horse care and wellbeing than those who own horses in the back paddock, she says.
“I trust the trainers – they are all very knowledgeable. They are not going to put a horse in the ring if they think there is something wrong with them. If they are coughing, if they are lame, if there is something not right – they would not race them.”
Some trainers are better at spotting injuries early and resting a horse, while others can push too far, leading to irreparable damage and even death.
As 12 horses parade in the birdcage, their legs seem out of proportion to the powerful torso. They look ill-equipped to hold up even a ballet dancer, let alone 500 kilograms.
“They have been bred for speed,” the vet says.
“Their legs are fairly comparable to others, but they are not as thick, or as heavy.
“They are all going to have a breaking point, but we currently don’t have a method to measure that breaking point.”
Given more time with the horse and were an accurate measurement for fractures available, injuries that often result in euthanasia could be prevented, she says.
“Even x-rays don’t necessarily show up stress fractures … none of us really know until they fail.”
Horse racing will never be safe enough – welfare activists
On the other side of the racing gates are the animal welfare groups. Some disagree with aspects of the sport, others want horse racing banned.
SAFE head of campaigns Macdonald says her concerns were around deaths and injuries, as opposed to treatment off the track.
“Racing puts horses at high risk of injury when they fall, collide or hurtle into barriers, it can be horrific. They suffer broken legs, shoulders, shattered spines, burst arteries and heart attacks.”
In Australia 119 horses died on the track between August 2017 and July 2018 – most from front limb injuries.
In New Zealand, there were 25 New Zealand racing fatalities in that period – .94 out of 1000 starts nationally – according to NZTR figures. Statistics show a steady increase from .68/1000 in 2011, when NZTR first started recording horse deaths.
NZTR animal welfare general manager Burns could not identify any specific reason for the increase.
“When you are dealing with small numbers in a large population it does jump around a bit … It sort of fluctuates between 15 and 20 deaths a year,” Burns says.
“There’s not a cause for concern in terms of a pattern of why that’s happening. It sometimes comes down to individual horses and the fates combine and more of them in one year have an injury – then the numbers will be what they will be.”
New Zealand horse racing is less dangerous for horses that the United States.
The American Jockey Club listed 484 fatalities in 2015, a drop from 1.89 per 1000 starts in 2014 to 1.62 in 2015.
Although increasing, Burns says New Zealand’s lesser fatality rate is due to good care. Kiwi horses are not “boxed” in their juvenile years like many overseas. They are given space to run, which builds stronger muscles and bones, preventing injury.
It was a reasonably quiet day when Stuff visited Awapuni. There were a variety of punters, trainers, jockeys, officials and corporate sponsors. It wasn’t hard to pick who was there for the betting, the money or the food.
Was anyone there to just admire the honed horse flesh?
Yes, says Burns.
The industry provides what is fading in Kiwi society, a sense of community, he says. A race day gathers people from all walks of life.
“When you hear about it talked as the sport of kings, it is not the case. In New Zealand it is a great leveller. Everybody has a chance on the track.
“At race day millionaires and paupers will mix and everyone has a common interest … people do it because they love it and not because of the money.”
Providing a community or not, animal welfare groups believe racing will never be safe enough.
Macdonald says the quick fix is taking away the ability to gamble on the sport.
“Take away the gambling and the industry will die – just as the horses forced to race continue to die.”
Come and take a look for yourself – racing industry
Moki’s face lights up when she talks about the horses. She says they each have personalities and she has her favourites.
The 29-year-old takes it personally when the racing industry is criticised for mistreatment of horses, saying the comments are off the mark.
“I don’t think you could do a job like this without having a lot of love for them.
“A lot of us get upset when we see animal activists and all those kind of people telling us that we are cruel and that we harm animals and ‘if we loved them we wouldn’t race them’, but it is completely the opposite.”
There is no room for cruelty in racing, Moki says. She welcomes doubters to take a look behind the scenes.
“I would just like any one of those people to come to a race day and see how well looked after they are, the way we treat them. You wouldn’t have a job in a racing stable if you were a cruel person. You would get found out very easily.
“Horses will give it away too, they are kind of like dogs. If a dog gets hit it’ll flinch, it is the same with horses.
“They are so important. They are what makes our living, they make it possible. So they are everything to us.”
Burns says the Melbourne Cup is on a world stage, so it will always invite scrutiny when deaths occur.
“I don’t have a problem with people advocating for animal welfare, that’s aligned with our own thinking. There is just a better need to understand what goes on, on race day and what goes in to the conditioning of a horse because trainers and owners don’t want to risk their horse either.
“They are high priced animals and that is why they get cared for so well.”
Trainer Latta, who has won more than $12 million in prizemoney and trained more than 700 winners and counting, is so confident of her staff’s care of her 60 plus horses, she sends welfare advocates an open invite to her Awapuni stables, no booking required.
“If you come in to my stable you could walk in there at any time and you wouldn’t need to make an appointment, I wouldn’t have an issue. Nothing to hide.”
Latta grew up around horses and her daughters are doing the same. It is in her DNA, and when a horse is injured or killed, it is hard to take.
“Touch wood, I haven’t had one [die] for a very long time, but it does happen. They’re around 500 kilos hitting the ground.
“[A horse death] is very hard, look you feel it, your staff feel it, we all feel it. It takes a long time to get over that.
“They come first. If we haven’t got a happy, sound, healthy horse – how are we going to win races?.”
Whipping – a tradition said to serve no purpose
Holding a jockey’s whips, it is apparent it can inflict pain.
A whip is about 60cm long. It has a black gripped handle, carbon fibre middle and a padded leather end – presumably to guard the horse from the hard rod it surrounds.
Watchingwith Moki we could hear the whips crack on the horses as they charged home. Moki observed “that will be one of the male jockeys for sure”.
“There are some that can hit hard, but not many. But there are a couple of ways to hit them,” she says.
A 2012 study conducted by veterinarian and Professor Paul McGreevy at the University of Sydney concluded whip use had no impact on race outcome.
The Australian RSPCA found the whip caused a visual indentation on the horse in 83 per cent of the strikes. The unpadded section of the whip made contact with the horse on 64 per cent of the strikes.
Moki says she doesn’t use the whip often and when she does, it is with the modernised underarm technique, more brushing than whacking.
NZTR’s introduction of the new whipping rules be read as signalling either that whipping is not required and stays for tradition’s sake, or NZTR agree over-whipping can cause harm
Under those rules the jockey can whip for the first 600m, after this the horse must take five strides for every whip, then for the last 100mthose in contention can whip as they see fit.
Hard hitting is “subjective from the steward”, and it is “actively policed”, says Burns.
Macdonald and SAFE don’t buy it.
“Horses have such sensitive skin that they can feel a fly land on their skin, so whipping causes inevitable pain. It’s only in racing that it’s considered legal to beat an animal.
“We’re concerned that profit is being put before the safety and lives of these animals. The owners and trainers of horses often appear to see them as nothing more than commodities to be exploited.”
World Animal Protection New Zealand say horse racing is outright cruel, and one of its biggest concerns was the use of the whip.
Using horses for entertainment value is wrong, Senior campaign manager Ben Pearson says.
“Such use may involve suffering or may negatively impact the animal’s welfare. Racing exposes animals to significant risk of injury and sometimes death through trauma or emergency euthanasia.”
Racing agencies can apply quick band aid fixes on the industry, but the routine deaths of horses in the industry means racing will always be a form of animal cruelty, he says.
Last season the Racing Integrity Unit (RIU), which oversees rules and regulations, fined 152 jockeys.
It averaged out to be 5.7 charges per 1000 starters, about one charge every two race meetings. In harness racing there were 132 whip charges, or 4.9 charges per 1000 starters.
What happens to the unwanted?
In addition to horses injured or killed in races, those who don’t make the grade or retire as “losers” are often discarded as they are not deemed profitable.
It is referred to by animal welfare groups as “wastage” and is a big concern.
SAFE’s Macdonald says figures of 300 out of every 1000 foals bred for racing will make it to a race. Almost 9000 thoroughbred horses born each year will be considered unusable.
In Australia, 9 per cent of Victorian thoroughbreds die or are euthanised as a result of illness, injury or purely not being up to a race standard. About .4 per cent of thoroughbreds end up in an abattoir.
New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries did not have exact figures on how many horses were sent to the meatworks each year, but said figures were not “significant”.
Ministry communications advisor Leigh Strange said horse welfare complaints over the past two years were relatively minor or unsubstantiated.
None of the complaints related to race day incidents, as they were dealt with by the RIU.
The body’s general manager Mike Godber says rules and regulations have been tightened over the past decade and simplified for the benefit of everyone.
NZTR could not confirm how many of the horses were sent to slaughter and how many were rehomed, for secondhand careers such as equestrian, farm work and show horses.
Burns says most retired horses that don’t go on to a breeding career are rehomed.
“Where a thoroughbred has a temperament that deems it to be unsuitable to be retrained as a sport or pleasure horse or there is insufficient demand for retrained, then owners may be faced with a choice of the horse suffering potential neglect or of humane slaughter.