Cup deaths a tragedy that racing can’t spin

Araldo crossed the finish line. He died later at Werribee Veterinary Hospital. Photo: Getty

Araldo crossed the finish line. He died later at Werribee Veterinary Hospital. Photo: Getty

It was a Melbourne Cup for the bogan-villea set.

Favourite Admire Rakti collapsed and died after the race, but Araldo too? After finishing seventh and pocketing connections $125,000, the Mike Moroney-owned horse fractured a leg after being spooked by an Australian flag waver.

It’s well within Moroney’s rights to consider his legal options. For an internationally acclaimed race the shoddiness surrounding Araldo’s death must make foreign owners think twice about making the trip Down Under. Then again, there’s $6 million up for grabs and horses are replaceable.

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Money talks but we’ve witnessed a sad couple of Cups. Last year the Aga Khan’s Verema pulled up in the back straight and was put down, and now this deathly double. What a marketing disaster!

The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) can now claim the high moral ground and rightly so. Just before the Spring Carnival the CPR placed a billboard on Melbourne’s busy Citylink. It pictured a dead horse under the caption, “Is the party worth it?”

Perhaps it isn’t if this year’s Cup is any indication.

Admire Rakti in training. Photo: Getty.

Admire Rakti in training. Photo: Getty.

Racing Victoria must face the harsh reality that the sign was not “distasteful” as it claimed. The CEO of the Australian Racing Board, Peter McGauran, must reconsider if the billboard was a “terrible distortion of the reality of thoroughbred racing”. If they don’t, horse racing in this country is on the skids, despite the turnout on the Maribyrnong’s mudflats.

Let’s face it, thoroughbred racehorses probably give more to the dog food industry than to the mug punters in ‘nong’s bookmaking ring, or the numerous hopefuls at the totes or online. Thoroughbreds have a high mortality rate. With only two per cent earning their connections some return at all, most are trucked off to knackeries.

In 2012, the CPR filmed the shooting of abandoned horses at a Laverton knackery. They were beaten with sticks, and one shot horse appeared to be dragged over concrete ground while still alive. This was animal cruelty.

Annually around 13,000 racehorses are slaughtered each year. Racing Victoria disagrees, suggesting 90 per cent of old horses find new homes, while trainer Peter Moody claims racehorses are “the most cared for horses in the land”.

This is just marketing spin. Once off the books most horses are earmarked for a bullet, and the nation’s dog food cans and horsemeat export market. In all, 30-40,000 horses are slaughtered in Australia annually, of which 40 per cent are thoroughbreds.

Those which do make the grade on the track have to earn their keep and at a cost. They begin racing as two year olds before their bones are fully formed.

They are fed high-grain diets and placed under undue stress, causing stomach ulcers. As overseas studies have shown, around 80 per cent of racehorses suffer from such ulcers. Many also suffer from internal bleeding caused by over-exertion.

Despite the popularly-touted perception that horses want to run, some simply don’t. They don’t want to carry the top weight over two miles on a hot day. As has been found in the US, this can be a recipe for disaster for the racing industry.

Araldo crossed the finish line. He died later at Werribee Veterinary Hospital. Photo: Getty

Araldo crosses the finish line. He died later at Werribee Veterinary Hospital. Photo: Getty

High-profile deaths have already hit the US racing market hard. In the 1990s television audiences watched Go For Wand and Mr Brooks running under considerable duress in the Breeders’ Cup. The horses were later destroyed, prompting public outrage and a slump in racing’s popularity.

It was the start of a rethink of the US racing industry. But little has been achieved. According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 24 horses each week still die on US race tracks. On San Diego’s Del Mar track alone, there have been 14 deaths since the start of this year’s season in mid-July.

No sport wants to be associated with death or the accusation of cruelty. The media and racing industry have done their best to downplay the Admire Rakti and Araldo tragedies. But there will be a backlash against the industry.

Questions were being asked about horse racing before the start of this year’s Spring Carnival. These deaths will merely increase the scrutiny on the local horse racing game.

Clearly local racing authorities, sponsors and broadcaster don’t want television footage of a distressed horse slumping in its stall while a handler tries to drag its head up. Suffering horses aren’t ratings winners. They deter sponsors.

The Spring Carnival is Melbourne and arguably Australia’s premier sporting event. With a $6 million-plus purse, the Cup attracts an international field and attention. But it can ill-afford these tragedies or it will go the way of boxing, trotting and greyhound racing, all fading relics of a bygone era in Australian sport.

Tom Heenan teaches sport at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies.

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