By Michael Hutak
Last year’s Everest winner Redzel. This week was supposed to be all about it assuming the mantle as “Australia’s great horse race”.
(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
As the week unwound, marketing for The Everest went into overdrive. When the barrier draw on Tuesday used the Harbour Bridge — absent the outrage of last year’s Opera House fiasco — Racing NSW supremos got busy crafting an entirely different narrative for today; one where The Everest, after just three runnings, would cast aside the sclerotic, centuries-old Melbourne Cup and assume the mantle as Australia’s greatest horse race.
Then Thursday night’s 7.30 went to air, sweeping away all this facade to lay a repellent, despicable truth in the shape of a procession of abused, tortured and finally dead racehorses at the feet of racing regulators.
I’ve been covering racing integrity issues for three decades, there’s never any shortage of outrages.
But, contrary to contemporary opinion, *most* racing folk display more than a shred of humanity, and like anyone else with a heart most are outraged, appalled, sickened, disgusted and are demanding answers from racing regulators.
They all know finally that this threat is now existential. Racing itself is on the chopping block. Five-time Melbourne Cup winner Lee Freedman, himself no stranger to controversy, laid it out with clarity:
Lee Freedman tweet: I am broken hearted at the ABC report. If we don’t make real changes the court of public opinion will bury racing.
‘Judged by its worst behaviour’
Two key points emerge from the evidence as reported by 7.30:
- Racehorses, in unacceptable numbers, are still ending their lives as pet food. This is not illegal, but it is repugnant. The supply is racing’s problem to clean up immediately, not in another three years from now. But it is also a problem of demand, and we need to look at the consumers of pet food, be they pet lovers or the greyhound industry. Please stand up, those comfortable with feeding dead racehorses to feed Fido or Rex or Fifi or Basil.
- Horses in slaughterhouses and the pet food industry are being subjected to horrific cruelty. This is illegal, and is everyone’s problem, not least the governments and agencies such as the RSPCA who are empowered to enforce various acts to prevent and protect animals from such horrible acts of deliberate cruelty. It is thus important to see Friday’s move by the Queensland Government to investigate the abattoir at the centre of the report.
Racing has been here before. As I wrote in 2016 at the height of the still-born greyhounds ban, the industry knew it was on notice to get its act together and Racing NSW was indeed the first state to get ahead of the story by installing its current regime of (attempting) to rehome all retired racehorses.
Racing Australia’s response has been utterly inadequate. 7.30 highlighted its incredulous claim that just 1 per cent of thoroughbreds retired annually end up at abattoirs, which would amount to just 34 per year.
Racing Australia blames owners. In a statement released on Thursday they put the onus on owners who have “an obligation to provide Racing Australia with the reasons for the horse’s retirement”.
Clearly, such self-reporting is completely inadequate. Racehorse owners’ organisations, meanwhile, have been mute.
Horse racing “is judged by its worst behaviour, not its best”, and all racing jurisdictions and participants need to step up integrity resources, and name, shame and ban anyone transgressing its own rules. Otherwise the game itself will be done.
There’s no appetite for governments to reassume regulation. A good place to start would be embracing 100 per cent transparency of racing and breeding workings, warts and all, before splashing millions of dollars on marketing and creating hollow dreams to mask the corporate fortunes being made from legal wagering.
Don’t blame the messenger
The fact that we are here again says whatever is being done by racing regulators is still not working. NSW is crying foul, with some reason, as it is still the only state that has a racing rule that you can’t take a thoroughbred to a knackery, and it’s against the law in NSW to present horses at abattoirs for human consumption and it has no jurisdiction over a Queensland abattoir.
But there’s no point blaming the messenger. When NSW announced its measure in 2016, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, which has led calls to ban horse racing, called it “a huge breakthrough in our campaign, but only just the beginning. Now we need all other states to follow”.
It’s time racing bosses brought its keenest critics into the fold and worked with them to ensure no racehorse is ever subjected to what we witnessed on Thursday, thanks to some courageous reporting and these whistleblowers.
Yep, the story was dropped at a time when racing least wanted it and it would do the most damage, but that’s a good thing, because racing needs to deal with it, drop the marketing bullshit, or it will indeed be buried.
Some practical solutions have been offered. The best I have seen comes from race caller and breeder David Raphael. He proposes to make it illegal for an abattoir to accept a thoroughbred and for all registered racehorses to be tracked via blockchain technology for life.
But racing has many issues of integrity beyond this that it must grapple. The only positive for racing’s spin doctors is this abomination has temporarily displaced the use of jiggers in racing. That dirty secret will have to wait.
Michael Hutak is a journalist, communications specialist and former racing editor.
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