Horse racing deaths revive welfare debate

JENELLE STAFFORD

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Three stewards horses graze beside the Gold Coast Turf Club track. Photo: Jenelle Stafford

Admire Rakti, Araldo, Verema – three racehorses whose names will never be seen on a racing program again. These horses died during or immediately after the last two Melbourne Cups.

Their story is not unique, and it has amplified the hype surrounding animal welfare in horse racing.

Social media has covered the issue of racing horse welfare intensively since the Melbourne Cup last Tuesday.

In response, Chief Executive of the Australian Racing Board Peter McGauran said the fatality rate among racehorses was ‘minute’, with about 125 deaths out of 189,259 active racers in the 2013-2014 season.

“The number of fatalities for the season is yet to be confirmed, but assuming it is at the high end of 125 that extremists claim, this represents a fatality ratio of 0.07 per cent of starters,” Mr McGauran said in the statement.

“Each fatality is followed by an autopsy and of the hundreds done to date, most, if not all, have found that there was no detectable pre-existing condition in the horse,” he said.

But Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) Campaign Director Elio Celotto said the deaths of Admire Rakti and Araldo after the Cup showcased the ‘true face’ of the industry.

CPR said their research indicated up to 90 per cent of racehorses suffered from stomach ulcers as a result of stress, extreme feeding regimes and antibiotics and 90 per cent tested positive for blood in their windpipe after racing. Neither of these classify as pre-existing conditions.

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Veteran horse trainer Trevor Whittington Photo: trevorwhittingtonracing.com

Mr Celotto used a comparison of human versus equine athletes as an example to emphasise CPR’s stance, and said a human would recognise they were injured or unwell and would stop to recover, whereas a horse will continue on.

“They look fit and healthy but they’re far from it,” Mr Celotto said.

“Horses are prey animals so they try to hide any pain or discomfort and just keep going,” Mr Celotto said.

Although CPR’s main campaign is on wastage and knackeries, they are also active in improving welfare for the small portion of horses who do make it into racing.

“The main issue is there’s no retirement plan for racehorses,” Mr Celotto said.

But veteran Gold Coast racehorse trainer Trevor Whittington said that was untrue.

Mr Whittington, 65, has been involved in the racing industry since age 10, most notably as a respected jockey and then trainer.

“We actually give our retired horses away to showing and eventing homes, so we know exactly where they’re going and being treated,” Mr Whittington said.

“From the time a mare goes to a stallion to be served everything is registered. Even if she misses or the foal is stillborn it still has to be registered and the authorities have to be informed about everything, whatever happens, it all gets recorded,” Mr Whittington explained.

Mr Whittington said claims that the racing industry regularly raced unwell horses was unfounded.

“It’s absolute rubbish. These horses, they’re like our family, there’s nothing we would do to risk harming them in any way, we live with them, work with them, they become like family,” he said.

“Ninety per cent of the people working in the industry are in it because they love it and they love the animals, they’re certainly not in it for the money because it doesn’t pay well!”

Given the expense involved in owning and housing a racehorse, it is common for an injured or retired horse to be rehomed as quickly as possible.

Bailey, a 5-year-old thoroughbred gelding grazing at his new home, Chaydn Equestrian Park on 6 November 2014. Bailey was retired from racing due to health issues and is now being trained for eventing. Photo credit: Jenelle Stafford.

Bailey, a 5-year-old thoroughbred gelding grazing at his new home, Chaydn Equestrian Park. Photo: Jenelle Stafford

One such horse is 5-year-old thoroughbred, Bailey.

Bailey was originally rescued by Hannah Stephenson, 21, who had been searching for a rescue horse on Gumtree.com when Bailey’s owner contacted her via her advertisement.

Miss Stephenson said the horse suffered a medical condition that prevented him racing further.

“Bailey’s nose would bleed after racing so they didn’t know what to do with him,” Miss Stephenson explained.

The condition is believed to be caused by an excessive and continuous exercise regime culminating in one episode of extremely strenuous exercise – or in lay terms, a heavy training schedule followed by a race, resulting in burst blood vessels and blood in the windpipe.

When Miss Stephenson first received Bailey he also had temperament and behaviour problems.

“He had no idea what a carrot was, he didn’t know how to be a horse,” Miss Stephenson recalled.

Miss Stephenson was assured Bailey was a quiet and calm ride but has passed him on to a more advanced event rider after she was thrown.

Eighteen months later, Bailey is partial to carrots, happily interacts with neighbouring gelding, Cerus, and has finally started to gain condition.

But the reality remains that not every horse bred and/or trained for racing has a happy ending, as Miss Stephenson explained.

“They’re so young when the decision to keep them or not is made and it’s really overpopulating the breed,” she said.

While trainer Trevor Whittington agreed there was a problem with excess stock going to sales where they were often bought by knackeries, he said the horses that did make it to the track were “pampered” and adored.

Mr Whittington said the deaths of Admire Rakti and Araldo were accidents that could not be foreseen.

“Acute heart failure can happen to anyone at anytime, and anyone who has been around horses knows flags and balloons and such are a bad idea,” Mr Whittington said.

“Flemington has already started making changes to the lane to ensure what happened to Araldo can’t happen again,” he said.

“The reality is, racehorses are cared for better than most people.”

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