The Melbourne Cup, oft described as the race that stops a nation, may be something of a cultural cliche, but with a heritage dating back over 150 years it’s also a tradition. It is an iconic part of Australian society and now a focal point of racing internationally.
Think of the Melbourne Cup and you no doubt picture a colourful and festive atmosphere at Flemington. Flowers are blooming, the grass is green, men in coats and ladies with dresses and hats sip bubbly in a homage to a bygone era. Yet the dark side of the cup, the dark side of the horse racing industry, has never been far away from this colourful, idealised picture. In the very first Melbourne Cup in 1861, a terrible fall cost the lives of two horses and injured a jockey. Following yesterday’s race, Japanese favourite Admire Rakti collapsed in its stall after coming last and died shortly after. The cause revealed today was acute heart failure. The conditions is said to be rare, occurring in both horses and in human athletes, where the rhythm of the heart during exertion becomes, in the words of Racing Victoria’s chief vet “disorganised.”
Meanwhile another contender, Araldo who came 7th, injured its leg on a fence after been spooked by a spectator. Despite treatment, the horse was put down, taking yesterday’s toll to two.
The horse racing industry is, to varying degrees, one of exploitation for entertainment and for financial gain. While Melbourne Cup day may present an overt image of pomp and celebration, it hides the sobering realities of the industry. The fact that thousands of horses are a byproduct and disposed of. The fact that those lucky enough to make it to the track and enjoy a career will still be pushed to the brink (and sometimes beyond) and endure injuries as a matter of course.
The overt pomp and celebration of Cup day also creates an unrealistic impression of its history and its purpose. There are no doubt some purists for whom the race itself, the competition and the athleticism is the attraction. But from the outset cup day was more about social spectacle than athletic competition. Organisers of the early Melbourne Cups, concerned by the prospect low attendance, issued a larger proportion of women’s tickets than men’s in the belief one type of filly would attract men to a horse race more than another. Since then fashions on the field, drinking too much and declaring to a news camera you’re not even watching the horses race has become as synonymous with the cup as the sounds of hooves galloping.
As the news spread yesterday that one horse was dead and another gravely ill, the response was immediate. There were of course expressions of sadness and questions about whether what occurred could have been prevented. But beyond this were calls to end the horse racing industry, deriding it for its exploitation and cruelty.
Something struck me though reading the remarks – how many of them could just as easily apply to other sports. Why then don’t we see the same derision of harmful exertion for entertainment and money following an NRL grand final? On the contrary many cheer at the bone crushing tackles and commend a player still seeing stars for playing on through the pain.The spectacle, the glory and the grog distract from the injuries that can last a player’s life time. Admittedly the player has a choice the horse doesn’t have, in playing despite the almost inevitable long term brain injuries we now know occur. The obvious counter argument though would be the horse may not have had a chance to exist at all were it not for the horse racing industry, while the player would.
I’m not going to declare that the horse racing industry should not exist, nor would I declare that NRL should not exist. But let us be clear, no sport is free of exploitation, free of hazard or free of tragedy. Sports carry risks and come with costs, and whatever the sport, those risks and those costs must be minimised.
It is also up to the consumers of sport, those whose patronage sustains them, to be aware of the risks and the costs of the sports and to not be distracted by what is on the surface. Don’t ignore the dark side, for doing so let’s those aspects of the sport remain in the shadows, unchanged.