The bright brilliant colours of the jockeys' silks. The sleek shining horses coming down the straight. The thrill as the members at Royal Randwick gather at the finish line to watch them pass. So elegantly social; such easy entitlement. In the mounting yard the gleaming horses prance; muscular elite athletes, polished to perfection. The afternoon wears on, the bets are laid, the horses come thundering, the champagne keeps flowing. Fortunes are made and lost on days like this. But all this glamour in the members enclosure at Randwick's new $152 million grandstand masks racing's darkest secret.
What happens to these magnificent animals when they are finished racing? When they are not fast enough, or strong enough, or are injured. When they show no aptitude. When, bred for speed, they become surplus to requirements. They become what the industry calls 'wastage'. Discarded.
“This industry treats horses as throwaway products” says one industry insider, “it is so far removed from treating the Equine thoroughbred as an athlete.”
Australia is second only to the United States in breeding thoroughbreds. Some 17,500 horses are bred every year, two thirds of which will never even make it to the track.
“The racing industry is churning out all these horses with no contingency plan for when they can't race any more,” says Ward Young of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses. “Once they are no longer an earning proposition they start costing money. That means they need to offload the horses as soon as possible.”
The Golden Slipper is the world's richest two year old horse race; Australians wager $14.2 billion dollars a year on thoroughbred racing.
“It is massive, a significant employer” says Vin Cox, managing director of Magic Millions. This is a powerful commercial enterprise with influential stake holders; there is apparently no room for sentimentality for its turbo charged commodity – the horse. Even Peter Moody, who is “an avid horse lover” and who trained Black Caviar, admits “I do have a soft spot for some horses but it is business and I can't afford to get too attached.”
***More than 30,000 horses raced last year, with 13,000 new registrations. How manyhorses are retiring and what happens to them depends on who you talk to. Ward Young says “the racing industry is slaughtering thousands of animals annually as they are discarded to make way for younger, faster horses”, putting the numbers in the high five figures, “what we do know is that the industry breeds all these horses and it doesn't grow so the same number of horses has to exit the industry every year.”
Peter McGauran, CEO of the Australian Racing Board puts the numbers at “an estimated 8,000”. He said the numbers put forward by Young are “an urban myth”, but admitted that the fate of ex race-horses is “still an unresolved issue.” But the truth is nobody really knows how many there are. And “retirement” does not necessarily mean a sunny green pasture to the racing industry, it can be a one way trip to the knackery. Until now the movement of horses has been neither regulated or recorded.
Bill Saunders of Cyberhorse who retrains and "re-homes" retiring race-horses, says “There is no system for ex-racehorse disposal. When I went to Racing Victoria to get official statistics on the size of the problem they couldn't tell me. There was no official requirement for a trainer or owner to say that a horse had been retired or what happened to it. So the only way that the RV knew a horse was no longer around is if it hadn't been entered in a race for while.”
Stable-hands speak of horses 'disappearing' from training complexes. “We know a handful of names like Black Caviar, Makybe Diva, Americaine, but what about the rest of them?” asks Young.
***On a cold, sleeting winter day on a bleak flat plain we see the flip side of the lustre of Royal Randwick racing set. It is hard to imagine a more dispiriting place than the Echuca sales yards, known as "the doggers", on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Here the horses that are not sold as riding horses, or rescued go to the kill pens, to be sold as dog meat. Among the depressed, neglected horses with swollen legs, protruding bones, bad hooves, are young beautiful thoroughbreds and yearlings who were not good enough. Distressed and frightened, the whites of their eyes rolling, not fed, or cared for, they know something is very wrong. “They know it is the end of the line”, says Georgie Purcell from the Coalition for the Protection of Race-horses. Some of them comfort each other, others step forward with trust in their huge liquid eyes as the auctioneer comes to them, shouting and they are sold for $200 to George Marsh from Laverton Pet Supplies. One horse was so frightened by the noise it tried to leap out of the high metal pen. It is deeply upsetting to see them driven out in trucks for their last minutes on earth in a sinister corrugated iron shed with Fresh Pet Meat crudely painted on it, on a sleeting winter day – the knackery.
***They will be rounded up and taken one by one into the killing box where they will be shot in front of each other. “This is what they are reduced to” says Young, “after the glory, fame, adulation, they end up on a windy plain in Laverton waiting for a bullet in the head.” As they huddle together outside we can see the thoroughbred brands on some of them. “They communicate with each other” says Ward, “they suffer, they quiver, they shake, they mourn. There is absolutely no dignity for horses who have kept people employed and made them money.” Desposer, was a chestnut horse born in Ireland, raced at Royal Ascot, went to Hong Kong and then came to Australia and won over $1.1 million before being dumped alone, forgotten left for dead when he was filmed by the Coalition for the Protection of Race-horses in the Echuca meat pens last year. “There have been horses bought from the meat pens who when their brands have been traced it has been found that they have earned hundreds and thousands of dollars in their racing careers” says Rebecca Atkins, President of Quest Equine Welfare Services.
Thirty to forty thousand horses in Australia are processed each year for human consumption in places like France, Belgium, Japan and Russia. The demand is for healthy, young animals which yield the best cuts. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of them are thoroughbreds under seven years old, and some as young a two or three. When horses are racing they are, says Cox, “better looked after than the children of the people looking after them. Most people have a genuine love for horses and want to look after them. It is a life long passion.” Says Peter Moody: “We treat all our horses as individuals. I equate them to women with their instincts and attributes, and treat them like children or like human athletes.”
Many horses which don't make it in top-tier racing are sold to the country tracks where they can be raced until they break down. Mares will be kept for breeding when they finish racing, but sent to slaughter when they are too old to keep having foals. “Quite often the racing people will just call the knackery and the horse will go straight from the training complex and wont even make it to the sale yards” says Atkins. Although all the trainers and breeders we spoke to insisted that they did try to find homes as pleasure horses or event horses when their horses left the industry. Moody admits a lot of his horses don't finish their careers, “Wastage does happen but we try to place ours in pony clubbing, or dressage or show jumpers or for police horses. I am at the top of the pile so I am not exposed to it. People will take my horses.” Says Saunders: “if you talk to trainers, if they do send them to slaughter it is usually a completely unsuitable horse for re-homing, a mental ratbag or vicious or unreliable or a danger to itself and the people around it.” This, however, was not what we witnessed at the Echuca sales yards. Clapped out and old perhaps, destroyed by what humans have done to them definitely, but not vicious, just terrified.
From an early age race-horses have been taught that there are two speeds; stop and go - really fast in a straight line. Says Saunders, “Once they work out that you can actually go slowly without being punished into going faster they are actually very happy with the idea. Then you have got them listening to what you want. ”
Scott Brodie a thoroughbred rehabilitation manager, agrees. “ In racing the education is rudimentary. They only know how to stop when they have run out of track. What we have to do is make sure they have a lot of understanding of the grey areas between stop and go basically. We really do need to get the horse to the point where they do understand that there is communication going on. They are looking for it. They are always looking for the most comfortable and easy option.”
***Horse-woman Candida Baker discovered how psychologically traumatised racehorses can be when she took one on. “He was a beautiful horse, very quiet and easy. Then we took him to a jump club. He took one look at the bunting and the crowds and literally fell to the ground. He was just shaking and trembling, beside himself. People don't realise what highly emotional, intelligent and sensitive animals they are”. All horses,says Brodie suffer from separation anxiety. They are herd animals. The problem is there are just too many of them. “The breeding is just out of control and is being badly managed,” says the industry insider. “The idea that more is better is unworkable. A lot of horses are poorly bred and born out of mares that are also damaged through racing. This results in a horse whose chances on the track are limited if they make it at all.” Although as Inglis reported $90 million traded on its Easter Yearling sale this year you can see why it is happening - regardless of the attrition rate. Vin Cox speaks of the excitement of horse breeding and racing, the thrilling risks and the possible huge rewards, “new breeding and new crops of horses, it is very exciting to see them develop and grow. Who has got the best one, who has got the fastest one, which stallion is emerging.” In a more recent Inglis sale, however, says Atkins, the over breeding was apparent, “there were thousands of thoroughbred yearlings being sold for $300 and $500 dollars. The meat buyers are going straight to the Inglis sales which used to be prestigious. They need to stop breeding so many. That is the only solution.”Asks Moody, “Are there too many horses out there? Probably yes. Do some come to an untimely end? Probably yes. You are never ever going to be able to stop it. If a horse is badly injured it is more humane for it to be euthanised.”
***The huge brown horse lifts his head, his ears pricked forward and puts his velvety nose in my hand. Sir Pentire, who earned half a million dollars in his racing career was rescued from the doggers by Sue Forster. On her property outside Melbourne are twenty horses she has given a last minute reprieve. As she introduces each one, telling their sad stories, they are curious, gentle and friendly, crowding around her, nuzzling her. Grateful. Some had too many foals, others were raced too long. “They had to forget how to be race-horses and learn how to be a horse. People ask 'what have you done to them?” I say 'nothing, I treat them like a horse not like a number.” she says. Some of them will never get better or be ridden again, but with their shaggy winter coats they will live out their days in peace in these rolling green hills. Trackwiz, a ten year old former jumps horse, “earned a pretty decent living. He spent his whole life jumping. Didn't he earn his retirement?”
She believes that horses are not properly formed when they are racing at two years old, put to work to earn back the investment in them. “It sets their bodies up for failure.” The RSPCA has called for a veterinarian certificate to ensure that a horse is mature enough to race at this age. But she says rescuing race-horses “isn't the answer. There is never going to be enough people to rescue them.”
“These horses in paddocks die the most slow and uncomfortable deaths from neglect.” Some say thoroughbreds are said to be at their peak for speed and strength at three years of age, while others say horses' bones are not fully formed until the age of six. Their racing career generally lasts about three years – if they are lucky and not injured. But horses can live for 20 to 30 years.
In January of this year the American Jockey Club and its board of stewards took an unprecedented step in increasing its registry transactions to fund the newly formed Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, a fund-raising body to care for horses when their racing career is over. The Jockey Club contributed seed money from its commercial companies; breeders, 13 Kentucky horse studs, racetracks, buyers, horse sales companies all earmarked funds and pledged ongoing percentages. A small percentage from each point in the life-cycle of the Thoroughbred will ensure long and productive lives for the horses who had given so much.
The Canadian Jockey Club followed suit. “Everything we do in this industry begins and ends with the horse” said Jimmy Bell, President of Darley America. “It's time for the industry to make a tangible, long-term commitment to thoroughbred aftercare.”
***The Coalition for the Protection of Race-horses too has long advocated that the Australian racing industry give just one percent of its $14 billion turnover to look after the horses when they leave the industry. Says Ward Young: “every animal that comes into this world has a life expectancy of approximately 30 years and they owe a duty of care to that animal knowing that it might not be successful in the racing industry. You look at the Melbourne cup, people arriving by helicopter and all the superfluous frivolous things and the well-maintained rose gardens. And it is like, well, ok they can find the money for all that infra-structure, how about a little bit for the horse.”
Bill Saunders; “What is still missing is specific allocation of industry funding to
address the issues, combined with programs to highlight the achievements
of people working with horses doing things after racing.” In fact in recent years the racing bodies - facing the whiff of cruelty that clings to horse-racing - have begun making moves to be more accountable to the animals that provide their livelihoods. Says Saunders, “I think the industry spokespeople waffle a lot about the allegations because they still haven't formulated and implemented effective policies on a nationwide basis. However I can say that over the past few years there is a lot more official recognition (that) this is an issue which is not going to go away and it's having an effect on the social acceptability of horse racing. The average racehorse owner is more aware these days of what might happen to the horse if they don't get fully involved. You have got to encourage them to do the right thing. So that it becomes the normal thing that happens and anyone who doesn't is playing dirty pool.”
Saunders approached Racing Victoria and was funded by them for his pilot Cyberhorse Racehorse Outplacement program. “The purpose of the program when I started it three years ago was to demonstrate that it is possible to retrain and re-home racehorses.” Saunders' program provided good outcomes, proving that horses that might have been hopeless on the track could be brilliant dressage or show jumpers. “What Racing Victoria did was take that outcome of that initial exercise and then apply it to creating a system where a wide variety of people would get involved in retraining. It was never going to work with one big farm for horses to retire to. Now there is a list of people assessed as being people to take horses to.” Saunders makes sure that the horses are matched to the right people with the right skills for that horse and that those people have the resources to care for them. High octane race-horses being bought by inexperienced 16 year old girls who were desperate for a pony but could only afford an ex-racehorse has historically been the start of the slippery slope to the knackery for thoroughbred horses.
In 2011 Racing Victoria appointed Cara Shelley as its Equine Welfare Manager. While cynics say this is a mere public relations exercise, Shelley bristles at the idea of the doggers yards. No horse will be going there on her watch. “If I hear about it I will go and speak to the trainer.” Racing Victoria's Off The Track program sponsors events that supports horses in their post racing careers. “We promote the retired racehorse as the ideal horse to have. We want everyone to have retired race-horses because of their versatility and athleticism. The racing industry has always cared. More than 80 ex-racehorses will compete in equestrian events at this year's Royal Melbourne Show, including more than half the field for the Garryowen - the nation's most prestigious equestrian title.” Bill Saunders believes funds should be channelled into big prize money for equestrian competitions like show jumping and dressage for ex race horses like it is in other countries. “In the US and UK where this whole rehabilitation has been going for longer it is almost becoming fashionable to own one.” Similar programs are now under way in Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales. Former police horse trainer Scott Brodie runs the New South Wales Rehabilitation Trust, backed by Racing NSW. In addition to schooling horses to preliminary dressage levels the trust has partnered with New South Wales Corrective Services to train inmates and staff in natural horsemanship. Brodie says they have found homes for about 90 horses since the program started in 2011. “If we had more staff we could do a lot more.” Brodie says that ex racehorses are “very suitable for most of the Olympic disciplines” though the horses that make it to his program are the fortunate ones who have come through relatively intact. “We are very careful about the horses we take.” Even then they need a lot of work. “Whether they are damaged by racing is debatable, but they just don't get a lot of stability. They are often ridden by a different person every day for track work.”
**** This is an unexpurgated version of an article that first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend. Reproduced with permission of the Author.