Facts distorted in anti-racing backlash

I’m usually torn between loving the fact the Melbourne Cup gives racing a chance to be front and centre, and cringing at the ineptitude of general media when faced with the intricacies of our industry.

This year was no different with the usual raft of dumb questions from badly briefed interviewers.

However, the lack of racing knowledge no longer even rates an apology, instead over recent years we have seen the insidious creep of anti-racing sentiment.

Unfortunately, for all their passion the anti-racing brigade are largely ill-informed, regurgitating “facts” which are distorted to fit their own agenda, and ignorant of the reality of the life of a thoroughbred racehorse. In fact, some would seem to live in a fairyland of their own creation and be oblivious to the realities of life in general!

I find it appalling that these people who slide out of the woodwork once a year to spit their venom about the brutality of horse racing have so little empathy for the people who work – day in, day out – with our equine athletes.

They are happy to anthropomorphise animals yet lack the awareness to know that the humans attached to these animals hurt deeply when their charges are injured or destroyed.  Instead they claim punters, owners, trainers, strappers, jockeys, breeders, anyone with an association with horses, are only there for the money and the glory.  If that’s the case, then explain to me the cult-figure popularity of the likes of perennial non-winner Tom Melbourne?

Their level of self-awareness is so lacking that they maintain these claims even in the face of obvious grief.  Prime example being the image of an inconsolable Gerald Mosse as he walked away from a stricken Red Cadeaux after the 2015 Melbourne Cup.  A picture of a grown man reduced to tears does not fit their narrow narrative where horses are “forced” to race by those involved in a barbaric industry.

A lot of this perception is our own fault and down to how we portray racing to the general public.  Times have changed.  Kids don’t grow up these days with a random family member who lives on, or near, a farm thus allowing them to observe animals at close hand.  That lack of exposure and the disconnect between urban and rural, creates people with no idea about how animals behave and little comprehension when it comes to our industry.

We miss golden opportunities to educate about an industry which contributes $1.6b to the country’s economy.  On our big race days “celebrities” are fawned over and encouraged to come along to dress up and be seen at the races.  Their presence is supposed to provide some rubber stamp of approval from “influencers”.  The reality is often something else with the “celebrities” turning up, ignoring the action on the track while expressing their “on trend” distaste for racing via their social media channels – an epic fail on the promotion front then!

If we have them on track why aren’t we introducing them to the stars of the show? Now Ellerslie is equipped with its purpose-built stabling area it should be easy to get them up close and personal with an equine hero or two?  Let them go through the whole procedure – see the jockey weigh out, maybe talk to them about how difficult it is to maintain such an unnatural bodyweight. Watch the trainer saddle up, get the definitive answer to just why they stretch the horse’s legs out in front once they’ve done up the girth. We need to encourage the queries and embrace their interest and remind them that it’s not all about having a flutter, downing fizz and flaunting fascinators.

At the same time, we need to be telling them the stories about what happens to horses when their racing days are done. And perhaps more importantly, showing them these horses in their off the track environments.

Without that visible evidence those who are rarely exposed to racing will suck up whatever misinformation is put in front of them.  There is so much of it which is never challenged that figures relating to horse deaths are taken as fact and spread like a virus across social media.

Radio National in Australia was one of those perpetuating the myths which are spread without regard for truth with a tweet to promote a column by a theologist.  Yes, a theologist, it would appear everyone has an opinion on what is wrong with racing!  This chap claimed that between 30,000 and 40,000 horses are slaughtered in Australia each year.  He franked this as gospel by added that: “up to 60%, according to one RSPCA report – is from the racing industry.”

So, if we split the difference – 60% of 35,000 is 21,000.  The Australian foal crop is around 13,000 so each year the Australians are killing more horses than they breed. It’s on the internet it must be true, just like that email you got from the nice man wanting to transfer substantial sums into your bank account.

Entering into polite discussion to try and correct some of the misconceptions is an exercise in futility.  Like most zealots who tweet and share their own flavour of propaganda the anti-racing brigade cannot be moved from their steadfast beliefs.

In the post-Melbourne Cup media racing.com’s Matt Welsh attempted to quash the misinformation with a piece which included the following from the Racing Victoria Fact Sheet:

  • Over $350 million is spent on the care of Victorian racehorses annually;
  • The foal rates in Victoria have dropped by 32% over the past 10 years;
  • The fatality rate has been reduced to 0.05% of starts; and
  • 90% of retired horses enter equestrian, pleasure or breeding sectors.

The story continued:

The fact sheet states: “A recent study of the foals born in Victoria in 2005 by Dr Meredith Flash found that 74% of horses bred for racing entered training.

“Of these, 93% progressed to racing or an official trial. Racing Victoria has commenced a similar study into foals born in 2010 and 2015 and preliminary results suggest similar trends.

“Racing Victoria’s philosophy is that there is a home for every healthy thoroughbred after racing and it is working with both the racing and equestrian industries to use every avenue to rehome retiring racehorses in Victoria.

“A compulsory ‘Retirement Rule’ introduced by Racing Australia in 2014 has provided better information on retiring racehorses as they leave racing.

“Racing Australia advises that over the past three years 90% of Victorian horses have been retired directly to the equestrian, pleasure and breeding industries.

“Racing Victoria is also exploring a number of ways to improve traceability after racing, particularly when a horse has changed hands two, three or more times. This has been identified as a priority.”

This is the sort of information that racing people should have at their finger-tips.  The keyboard warriors who protest that racing should not exist do not care that you have worked with horses for more than 20-years and seen the level of care first-hand, they want facts and figures.

If we want to see racing flourish and thrive, we need to retain our social licence to operate and, animal welfare is a key component of that.  Racing bodies, including NZTR, have recognised this and made a strong commitment to developing and constantly evolving welfare systems.

We need to make more of a song and dance about the good we are doing – especially the earlier mentioned off the track thoroughbreds.  Those who live and work within the industry have seen progress made over recent years, but the once-a-year racegoers don’t, and they are questioning racing’s relevance.

The day after the Melbourne Cup TVNZ’s Breakfast programme held an online poll asking: “Is horse racing worth it?”  They didn’t define what “it” is, but the votes were overwhelmingly in the negative with more that 2600 voting not, opposed to 550-odd voting yes.

Combating some of the online negativity racing.com was leading the way again with their #LoveMyHorse which encouraged people to post a photo of them with their horse alongside the hashtag.  The hashtag was also appropriated by NZTR’s marketing arm Love Racing.

Let’s keep it up for the next 12 months, along with pushing out the real facts around the racing industry and attempt to address some of the mischievous misinformation pushed by the anti-brigade when they resurface again.