RARELY can a happy, bubbly, colourful story have so suddenly and decisively metamorphosed into a tragedy as did at last Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup.
It’s difficult to accommodate the word “death” into bright, breezy stories about alleged celebrities swilling champagne and dazzling Flemington fashions.
The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t mess about. It’s lead sports page story next day spoke of “Death in the afternoon”. A learned subeditor at Fairfax Media (insofar as FM still has subeditors) had done his/her Hemingway. Death In The Afternoon is the title of a 1932 Ernest Hemingway book about the ceremonies attached to that most cruel and barbaric of “sports”, bullfighting.
The Australian, in its own sweet, serendipitous way, arguably did even better. Because there was a prescient, disquieting comment piece in this journal on Melbourne Cup day, many hours before Admire Rakti’s collapse in the hosing-bay and Araldo having to be put down.
The award-winning sports journalist, Will Swanton, wrote of a letter he had received from the trainer of about 1000 horses, Neil Davies, pointing to racehorses being routinely subjected to extreme cruelty. Swanton conceded the fashion/celebrity aspect of the Melbourne Cup makes him “cringe”.
But mostly he allowed Davies’ letter to speak for itself: “Overuse of the whip in racing is very visible. It’s plain to see with the naked eye. What the average punter doesn’t see are the severe bits that are used in horses’ mouths. During the last 20 years it’s become increasingly common for horses to be handled and raced in ‘rearing’ bits. These circular bits are very thin and curve downwards inside a horse’s mouth. They apply severe pressure on a horse’s tongue. I’ve seen many horses with cut and damaged tongues caused by rearing bits.”
Davies went on: “I believe rearing bits should be banned. Every horse can feel a normal snaffle bit in his mouth. No horse needs more pain and pressure to control him. It’s a mystery to me how a rearing bit is supposed to help control a horse or help him to run faster. Horse welfare should be the priority of every horse person.
Yet archaic practices are still accepted in horse handling, and especially in the early handling and breaking in of young horses. Behind the scenes, young horses are terrorised with flags and ropes. Bucking, chasing and fighting are accepted as the norm. These techniques are condoned by some of the American horse gurus and have become common practise. It’s time to wake up and realise there’s a better way to handle and educate horses.”
Davies also offered the opinion that horses don’t have speed-related competitive instincts; they don’t know about “winning” or “losing” a race. Davies says: “When they go to the races they know what’s coming: a run around the track with other horses at extreme speed. That’s why they get excited and nervous before a race. But if horses were competitive and trying to win there would be no need to put jockeys on their backs.”
The scribe, like Swanton, isn’t an animal-rights activist. And he doesn’t know a great deal about the thoroughbred racing industry. But he believes he can discern situations when innocent animals are ruthlessly and recklessly exploited for commercial gain.
He knows when an image, such as the televised death of Admire Rakti, leaves him as sickened as does Hemingway’s deplorable glorification of the “art” of bullfighting. You feel a sense of helpless indignation and rage that transcends sadness or pity. Why are jockeys allowed to whip horses? If you did it to your child or your dog you’d probably face a court.
Swanton hasn’t penned an “I told you so” column. But this journal’s senior sports columnist, Patrick Smith, did a pretty good reinforcement job on Thursday.
Smith pointed out that no veterinary officer had been on hand when Admire Rakti died because the vet had been sent to try to assist Araldo, who had smashed his leg after taking fright at a flag-waving spectator.
Smith wrote of the oafish handling of a justifiably curious media. He wrote of racing authorities trying to drown critics “in a gale of denial”. And Smith also wrote this: “Admire Rakti won the Caulfield Cup, where he was whipped eight times more than (officially) allowed before the 100m. And jockey Zac Purton twice struck the horse on consecutive strides and once in three consecutive strides. So, Admire Rakti knew all about the whip when he gave up 800m from home on Tuesday.”
The chief executive of the Australian Racing Board, Peter McGauran, has accused animal rights organisations of being “ghoulish in the extreme” in using last Tuesday’s events at Flemington to make “a political point”. Mmmm. You might feel a word coming upon you, a word such as disingenuous.
This is the same Peter McGauran who represented the federal seat of Gippsland in the federal parliament for 25 years and (despite having to resign on one occasion over a travel rort scandal) was once John Howard’s minister for science and technology.
McGauran, 58, was a member of the National Party and not famous for passing up on scoring a political point. To be fair, McGauran has been moved to pledge ongoing safety research following the October 15 death of Caitlin Forrest after a four-horse fall at Murray Bridge. He was speaking, too, in the context of the death a day later of a young jockey, Carly Mae-Pye, after a trackwork fall in Rockhampton. And he has probably not forgotten that a French mare, Varema, had to be put down after last year’s Melbourne Cup, another broken leg victim.
Your correspondent would pull back from suggesting horseracing is a truly horrible, uncaring business. As he’s said, he isn’t an industry expert. Thus must he thank Swanton, Davies and Smith for guiding him through the deaths in the afternoon of what proved to be a truly ghastly day.