Gordon Campbell on how the animals fare within a racing industry in decline

e92873b8ce15b521174aSomehow, the office sweepstake on the Melbourne Cup is still likely to be a thing, even in the year 2021. Probably though, most non-punters would have missed the news that leaked out on Tuesday about the Victoria Racing Club’s investigation into the death in last year’s Cup race of the champion galloper Anthony Van Dyck, which became the seventh horse to die in the race in the past seven years. That grim statistic, as the Melbourne Age put it, makes the Melbourne Cup one of the deadliest horse races in the world.

What the Age uncovered was this:

….English Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck, was lame a month before he broke down in the Melbourne Cup, raising questions about why he was allowed to run. A report by Racing Victoria into the death found the Aidan O’Brien-trained stallion was administered a nerve block injection on October 9. Despite concerns about the horse’s fitness, CT scans were not done to determine the extent of the horse’s injuries.

For the record, a nerve block is a type of anaesthetic commonly used by vets when a horse is lame in order to locate – presumably, by a process of nerve elimination – the site of its soreness. Obviously, a CT scan tells you a lot more. Was a CT imaging machine readily available? Yes. One had been obtained across town from Flemington at the Werribee international equine facility after another foreign horse (also trained by Aidan O’Brien) had been euthanised after the 2018 Cup. Reportedly, the unpublished VRC report makes no criticism of Mr O’Brien, the management of the highly prized horse, or the conduct of the treating vet. Just another one of racing’s animal casualties. If this is how badly a highly valuable champion like Anthony Van Dyck is treated in Australasia’s premier race, what treatment is being meted out to the also-rans of the racing industry?

Racing in Decline

Well before voters put this country’s most prominent Racing Minister out to pasture last October, our racing industry had been in steep decline for over a decade. As net profits decline, animal welfare measures become less affordable. In late 2019, the Department of Internal Affairs gave a rough summary of the industry’s problems:

In the domestic racing industry, the current level of prize money is low and returns to owners are significantly lower than in other jurisdictions. Foal crops are declining, which inhibits future race field sizes, leading to less wagering and less revenue for the racing industry. Industry infrastructure is in a poor state. Without a significant increase in revenue and profits, the racing industry will continue to decline.

Much effort went into commissioning a blueprint for revitalising the industry and its revenue streams. The so-called Messara report canvassed the policy options. Should the number of racecourses be reduced, should the TAB be enabled to combat the compering lures of offshore online gambling, which reportedly sucked off from Kiwi punters an estimated $381 million between mid 2018 and the end of 2019. Maybe the TAB could be enabled to launch its own range of new and competitive products – a wider array of sports betting ! e-sports ! fantasy leagues ! While of course – hand on heart – being very, very mindful that any increase in gambling can be a Bad Thing.

That conflict between gambling revenues and social damage is never seriously addressed. It is as if mentioning it, resolves it. On that score, reading the Internal Affairs background papers – the links are all here – can be a darkly comical exercise. There is seen to be an overwhelming need to boost the revenues from racing, alongside an unavoidable need to acknowledge the social harms such increases commonly deliver:

The Messara Report recognised that the racing industry needs additional revenue to enable its revitalisation, recommending new products to achieve this. This needs to be done in a sustainable way that balances the racing industry’s need for new revenue with the Government’s responsibility to prevent and minimise gambling harm. A balance needs to be maintained between the Racing Act’s focus on revenue generation and preventing, identifying and addressing harm from gambling for New Zealanders.

Question: what is the difference between “wagering” which to the industry, is an acceptable thing (providing you don’t wager away the rent money) and “gambling” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is problematic for the vulnerable….Here’s the DIA considered verdict:

In general terms, the difference between a wagering product and a gambling product is that a punter is able to draw on available information to make an informed wager, while a gambling product is based on the luck of the draw.

LOL. So… If you bet on a horse race are you wagering or gambling? The difference has legal implications as to how and where the Gambling Act and the Racing Act apply, and overlap. This can get complicated, legislatively speaking. But hey, given that

this Wellington Racing Club web-page advises new punters to bet on such things as their lucky number or the pretty colours being worn by the jockey, I think we can agree that wagering involves something less than hard science. Overall, it is grimly amusing to watch the bureaucrats explore ways to operationalise the money grab envisioned, while still retaining the vestiges of a social conscience :

….One of the purposes of the Gambling Act is to authorise some gambling but prohibit the rest. Enabling the Racing Act to offer a wider range of products than catered for in the Gambling Act would put the two pieces of legislation at odds.

The solution suggested by then-Racing Minister Winston Peters: amend the Racing Act to stress the need to address problem gambling. Problem solved! Roll out the new, digital gambling I mean wagering, products!

Horse sense, and sensibility

Lest we forget, horses die on race day and in training, although the statistical count is a hotly contested subject. The toll from injury is more concrete. Since horse racing is the only “sport” that allows animals to be repeatedly beaten, the use of the whip is to say the least, controversial. Keep in mind that the skin surface being whipped has nerve endings sensitive enough to detect a fly landing on it. The efforts at “reform” on whipping have frankly, seemed ludicrous:

New Zealand’s whip rules were changed in October last year [2019] to the current directive which restricts the use of the whip to no more than five times prior to the final 100m, after which it may be used at the rider’s discretion…Other racing jurisdictions have already imposed more restrictive whip usage than New Zealand with France limiting whip use to just five times within a race; Ireland, eight times and the UK, seven. From October 2020, jockeys riding in California were prohibited from using the whip more than six times in a race, and from using it more than twice in succession without letting the horse respond.

Right, right. We get it. So, let’s still beat horses repeatedly but a bit less often, in the name of animal protection. The issue of “bleeding” in the lungs aka EIPH ( for “exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhaging”) has been another area of concern. Instead of reducing the length of races – who would ever think that making horses run fast for two miles on Melbourne Cup Day while carrying a jockey and a 50 kg minimum in lead weights could possibly be a concern? – the industry tends to treat EIPH with furosemide, a diuretic that lowers the horse’s blood pressure.

Who speaks for the horses? Well, the Orwellian-named Racing Integrity Unit (RIU) is the industry organisation responsible for monitoring animal welfare across galloping, harness racing and greyhound racing. Among the FAQs on its website, the RIU asks itself this:

8. What processes are in place to ensure animal welfare? On Race days there is always a at least one qualified Veterinarian present to inspect the horses and dogs, before during and after racing. RIU stewards and Investigators also visit licenced properties to ensure the welfare of the racing animals.

Right. But go back to the DIA papers, and you find in this June 2019 review of the RIU, a concern being expressed that since the RIU “is a limited liability company owned by the codes and Racing Board [it] lacks independence, and could be susceptible to conflict of interest.” Indeed it could. Moreover, the quality of the oversight role the RIU plays is, according to the DIA, open to question:

The RIU stewards are primarily focussed on the delivery of race day operations. The RIU investigators complete inquiries into breaches of the rules of racing. Both they and the stewards are responsible for completing activities such as stables and kennel visits and completing racing and out of competition drug testing. The unit has met their targets for these activities. It is difficult to determine the quality of these activities.

Others have also raised issues about the RIU:

A recent Racing Board survey identified concerns among participants about fairness, consistency and integrity of decision making, the willingness and ability to manage allegations of poor behaviour and a lack of visibility of women in the RIU and JCA ( aka the Judicial Appeal Authority that as the name imp-lies, manages the judicial and appeal decisions made within the racing industry.)

So, to repeat: on animal welfare issues who speaks clearly and independently for the horses, and for the greyhounds? Alas, it is not the Department of Internal Affairs. Because here comes the cop-out paragraph in their discussion paper:

The review of the animal welfare monitoring and enforcement concluded that significant activity is underway in this area with the codes developing and implementing strategies to improve industry standards. While there are opportunities to improve welfare monitoring systems and capability it is not considered necessary for further legislation or regulation to be developed.

Ahuh. So the industry is doing just great, even if the body tasked with overseeing that rising tide of greatness is deeply and inherently flawed. But heaven forbid that there should be fresh, clear and independent legislation and/or regulation to protect the animals involved in the desperate attempts to revive the profits of a declining industry. Frankly, if we can afford a Minister for Racing (current annual salary $288,900) surely we can afford a Minister for Animal Welfare. Keep all this in mind the next time the office tries to run a sweep on the Melbourne Cup. In time, horse racing and greyhound racing are going to be seen for that they are: as the modern equivalents of bear baiting and cockfighting. Those magnificent animals deserve far better from us.

Footnote One. Evidently, betting on the Melbourne Cup makes a crucial contribution to the racing industry’s financial position. In Australia for the 2020 race, domestic wagering turnover across the four days of the Cup carnival at Flemington grew by 6% to $667.3 million, driven largely by the record engagement by Australian punters on Cup Day itself:

A record $221.6 million was wagered across Australia on the 2020 Melbourne Cup – up 17.3% on 2019 with corporate bookmaker turnover growing by more than 50%;

A record $365 million was wagered on the Melbourne Cup Day meeting at Flemington – up 17% on the previous year.

Much the same applied in New Zealand on Cup Day:

The Melbourne Cup helped New Zealand’s TAB NZ grow turnover NZ$27.6m above budget in November, in turn allowing the country’s only licensed racing and sports betting operator to return NZ$14.4m to the racing codes over the month. TAB NZ customers staked NZ$11.5m on the Melbourne Cup race itself, again breaking the previous record of NZ$10.3m, set in 2018.

Interestingly, the Kiwi betting on this event in Australia in 2020 exceeded the betting on any comparable event on the NZ racing calendar:

The biggest domestic racing event was the NZ Trotting Cup day, for which turnover reached $11.3m, again breaking 2018’s record, this time of $10.8m. More than 40,000 account holders bet on the day’s racing.

This is big money. Keep in mind though, that the net profits from racing have not been enough in real terms – after inflation – to improve the fortunes of an industry in decline. Most younger people (ie those aged below 50) have other spending options. And almost all of those options do not involve the inflicting of harm upon animals.