In 2002, Cyberhorse brought to the attention of horse lovers the disgraceful treatment of three stallions which were locked 24/7 in boxes at the Werribee Park Equestrian centre.

The case attracted widespread attention, involving the RSPCA and the Victorian government.

One of the stallions, Cambridge, had foundered and was lying on his stable floor groaning in pain and unable to stand.

Following statements from RSPCA head Hugh Wirth that the horse should be put down, Cambridge's owners took out a Supreme Court injunction to fight the move.

Subsequently the owners did have Cambridge put to sleep in the middle of the night and his body burned to destroy the evidence of his awful suffering, but one memory of the whole affair lingers, which is that of a barrister who represented pro bono the parties who were trying to assist those poor horses.

She is Carolyn Burnside, a member of the Barristers' Animal Welfare Association, but perhaps better known to the Victorian public as the wife of State Attorney-General and Minister for Racing, Rob Hulls.

So the demand by Victorian Racing Minister Rob Hulls that Racing Victoria report on its progress in making jumps racing safer, should not have surprised many people.

After controversy over jumping fatalities a few years ago, the new "broom" fences were put in place with much fanfare, deaths decreased for a while and the horse welfare issue was considered sorted by Racing Victoria.

For a short while, the jumps horses around at the time were safer because when they made a mistake the new obstacles were more forgiving. However new inexperienced horses are migrating to the jumps field all the time and it was not long before a disturbing trend emerged.

Trainers and riders realised that it wasn't necessary to really jump the new obstacles. A simple cat leap would suffice. So now instead of the horses slowing down and measuring their stride to clear the jumps, they just galloped straight through them.

Any mistake at all was more likely to be fatal because of the extra speed involved and so it proved. No trainer or rider dared to allow his horse to jump properly because time spent in the air was giving lengths to the opposition.

So making the jumps safer is not the solution.

Unfortunately there is no other solution to making jumps racing safer without spending a totally disproportionate amount of money on a part of racing with little public support. Even if it were to be safer, such a solution will do nothing to make racing more popular. That opportunity slipped years ago.

The current debate over how much wagering operators should be paying for the use of racing conceals a much broader issue, which is "why is racing funded as it is?"

Forget about the argument about TAB versus bookmaker funding. Either way the funds they provide to racing can only come from punter losses. The vast majority of punters are male and of those maybe 10% that are compulsive gamblers contribute the bulk of the losses and therefore the bulk of racing funding.

So at best, the blokey audience for racing in the pub comprises maybe 5% of the population. This is the group that wants to whip horses to make them go faster, send the slow ones to the dogger and generally couldn't care less about racehorse welfare.

A new generation of racing administrators such as Rob Hines and politicians such as Rob Hulls recognise that basing the funding of racing on the betting habits of 5% of adults is stupid.

While there are those who would blame Ms Burnside for her husband's attitude to jumps racing, she represents a proxy for concerned women throughout the community.

A nation concerned over the welfare of whales is hardly likely to be any less concerned about that of horses, but most of our racing administrators live in a time warp.

Women are the decision makers most of the time about what their family does socially. Guaranteed there are households all around the country where racing is not part of the social calendar because of perceptions about how racing treats its elite athletes.

And the industry does a pathetic job of addressing these issues.

Its responses are reactionary, belated and ineffective.

The single biggest issue affecting community attitudes to the racing industry is the common perception that all retired racehorses are turned into dog meat.

We all know that is not true, but there are no official statistics on what does actually happen. We know to the last 100th of a second the time a horse ran in all its races, but we have no information on what happened to it when it is retired.

Trainers are required to maintain meticulous records while a horse is in their stable, but don't have to say anything about the circumstances under which it leaves.

Some racing administrators realise that this issue of post racing horse welfare is a blight on positive public perception of racing but few have any idea of what to do about it.

Well here are a few thoughts :-

  1. On a nationwide basis start collecting "outplacement" statistics so we can see state by state what happens to horses once they leave racing.
  2. Publicise them on the basis that the industry is embarking on a program to improve the outcome for ex-racehorses.
  3. As well as the obligatory barrier trials, a young horse should also be able to do a basic dressage test. The principle is that horses are very much conditioned by early experiences. If a horse's early education includes dressage, not only is it likely to be better able to carry a rider at speed around turns, but upon retirement it will know that being ridden is not just a matter of going flat out. Far more ex-racehorses will therefore be suitable mounts for non-professional riders.
  4. The most desirable outcome is that a horse has a useful life post racing, either as an equestrian horse or for breeding. There should be industry sponsored programs to allow owners to channel horses into these pursuits.
  5. For instance an industry promoted outplacement program could see owners pay a great deal less for training costs while their horse is retrained by competent professionals for a new career.
  6. Comparative statistics on the improvement in the fate of ex-racehorses should be published so that the public can see that the measures the industry is doing to address the issue are having the right effect.

There are whispers that the jumps racing review outcome to be announced this week will see it discontinued.

If so it would be the best thing for racing if administrators grasped the opportunity to present the outcome as the start of a new attitude with horse welfare at its core.

Combined with a strong public education campaign, racing at least in Victoria will have some chance of attracting paying fans from the 95% of the population who are currently indifferent or opposed.

They don't have to be punters to support racing financially. You only have to look at football and cricket to see that paying spectators are just as good a funding source.

Cyberhorse 2024 Bill Saunders Published 30/11/08