Melbourne Cup: Will Australian racing overcome cruelty scandals?
As Australia holds its most famous race, revelations of mistreatment of horses at an abattoir in Queensland have ignited coast-to-coast revulsion.
Last month allegations were aired that hundreds of registered racehorses are being sent to slaughterhouses in breach of racing rules and animal welfare guarantees.
The grim footage could not be further from the carnival and riches of Tuesday’s Melbourne Cup, arguably Australia’s most glittering sporting occasion.
The exposé by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and other scandals – including several recent race-day deaths – have dramatically escalated scrutiny of the sport.
Are Australian attitudes changing?
The abattoir footage, secretly gathered over two years, is pitiful and bloodthirsty. Abattoir workers are shown kicking horses in the head, attacking them with pipes and applying electric shocks to their genitals.
Trapped inside so-called “kill boxes”, the horses can barely move, while other animals watch on, defenceless and grimly waiting their turn.
A member of staff is heard swearing at the horses, calling them “maggots” and shouting “you’re going to… die here”. Another appears to cheer on as one animal is despatched. Some of the condemned gallopers are under two years old.
In the background, saccharine pop music can be heard – a disarranged soundtrack to a sad end for animals who were once celebrated by punters across Australia.
Although not household names, Take A Chance, Rapid Feet and Moonlight Dancer won races and prize money for their owners before they disappeared. Some horse meat was reportedly sold for human consumption overseas.
A tipping point?
“We only rarely see our supporters and other concerned Australians react with such anger and outrage, as they have to this issue,” Dr Bidda Jones, the acting head of RSPCA Australia, tells the BBC.
“This issue has significantly knocked Australian racing’s reputation and blown a huge hole in their claims that horse welfare is paramount and racehorses are treated like kings. This should very much be viewed as a crisis and a tipping point for the industry.”
The slaughter of thoroughbreds is legal in Australia, but regulations in some states require horses to be “rehomed”, or given a chance to run free with families, farms or charities.
But the brutality inflicted on the unwanted – officials call them “wastage” – is reportedly taking place every week, despite Racing Australia, the governing body, introducing a “traceability rule” in 2016 requiring the registration and tracking of all horses from birth to retirement.
“The horses are the stars of our sport and no-one will argue that they must be treated as such,” said Brian Kruger, the chairman of Racing Victoria, a state body.
In response to the slaughterhouse scandal, it announced it would spend A$25m (£13m; $17m) to care for thoroughbreds from the stable to the grave.
“We understand that the development of a national database for all horses will be a complex matter. We welcome the opportunity to work with government to trial a pilot scheme for thoroughbreds.”
What can the industry do?
Welfare campaigners argue that one of the fundamental problems is over-breeding. It is a scattergun, conveyor-belt policy of producing thousands of foals each year in the unrelenting search for a diamond in the straw.
Regulating or capping the number of newborns could be hard to enforce, but another radical move – banning the whip – is supported by activists and some sporting heavyweights.