Racing's rewards are great, but sport must always be aware of risks

Wherever you have horses racing, occasionally one will suffer a serious injury.

It might be career-ending. It might be life threatening.

All attempts will be made to preserve the horse, but if there is no other option it will be euthanised.

The Melbourne Cup is now a global event; it has always touched Australians, now it touches racing fans around the planet.

The Cliffsofmoher receives assistance on the track.

The Cliffsofmoher receives assistance on the track.Credit:Eddie Jim

So there can be little surprise when a horse dies that there is a loud chorus, greatly amplified by the leverage afforded by social media, arguing that racing is cruel, that horses are exploited and that the sport should be outlawed.

It's a point of view, and the anti-racing protesters are just as entitled to advance it as anyone else.

It's just for the most part I feel their venom is misplaced and their appeal is based upon an anthropomorphic emotionalism rather than a realistic examination of the situation.

There are fundamentalists in every walk of life and they will not change their perspective. That is their right.

For some people simply eating meat is wrong, as is using or wearing any animal products. Just having pets is an unconscionable exploitation of animals, and using animals – generally horses, dogs and birds (falconry, hawking) for sport can never be tolerated.

It's a philosophical point of view. I and millions of others differ, but we live in a society which does, thankfully, allow different opinions to flourish.

But so often it seems that for the animal activist community a racing tragedy such as the death, from a serious shoulder injury, of Irish galloper The Cliffsofmoher in Tuesday's Cup, is a moment to elicit public support and advance their core argument: that racing should be banned.

I certainly would agree with them on one thing – that it was sad that the horse met his end as a result of injuries sustained during the race. It's something no one wanted and certainly no one in the racing world is rejoicing about.

Marmelo (right) finishes second to Cross Counter in this year's Melbourne Cup.

Marmelo (right) finishes second to Cross Counter in this year’s Melbourne Cup.Credit:AP

I addressed this subject a few years ago after the death of The Aga Khan's mare Verema in the Melbourne Cup. I said at that time it was unfortunate and sad, but not a tragedy. It would have been a tragedy, I wrote then, had Christophe Lemaire, the mare's jockey, been speared into the turf and killed or left as a paraplegic as a result of his fall.

I was vilified on social media by animal activists then, and will probably be so again for expressing the same view about The Cliffsofmoher's jockey, Ryan Moore.

Moore, Lemaire and the other jockeys know the risks they are taking.

Opponents of racing argue that the horses they ride don't, that they are unwilling conscripts in a circus designed for public entertainment and gambling.

Are they unwilling, though?

Thoroughbreds are bred to race; it is their raison d'etre, they are the end point of some 300 years of breeding designed to refine the racehorse to maximise speed, strength and stamina that can then be tested and proven in ultimate competition on the racetrack.

It is their instinct; competition is in their DNA.

You only have to look at foals or yearlings in a field, long before they enter a racing yard, and they are galloping around, twisting and turning, competing with each other, one trying to outspeed his mate.

Racing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Tens of thousands of jobs are based on the racing economy.

Studs, stables, racetracks and ancillary businesses – forage merchants, veterinary practices, elements of the media, not to mention gambling companies (who also bet on myriad other things than racing, it should be pointed out), derive their income from the sport.

Country towns and rural areas, which often find it hard to attract investment and people to live in their region, benefit from the jobs created by the racing industry while the country cup meetings are social lubricants for rural Australia.

But racing cannot put its head in the sand and merely dismiss the antis as cranks, even if most suspect they are a small but highly vocal and organised minority.

Racing does have to be aware that it operates under what is these days termed a social license. That it can't live in a bubble and pretend that the rest of the world does not cast a glance at its practices and wonder how horses are treated when the cameras are not around.

It must be aware of how the show looks to the masses, who generally get involved on one or two days a year, Cup Day being the primary one.

I have been following and writing about racing for 50 years, since being exposed to it as young boy through my family working in Irish racing in the 1960s.

Racing, like all walks of life, has its bad apples. Some of those may not do the right thing by their charges, but they are a tiny minority.

For the most part everyone I have met in racing loves horses, ensures they have the best possible treatment (many are cosseted, fed and looked after far better than many humans) and would do anything to make sure they were fit, well and in good condition.

There would have been no one sadder at Flemington on Tuesday afternoon than TJ Comerford, Aidan O'Brien's travelling foreman, and the Irish trainer's staff based at Werribee who had been overseeing The Cliffsofmoher's Cup preparation for the past month.

In the end it comes down to a philosophical point of view.

Without racing, eventing, showjumping and other equestrian sports just how many horses would actually be in existence, certainly in the advanced industrial economies?

We don't use them for transport, agriculture or in industrial practice any more, so I am guessing their numbers would be a fraction of their current total if there were no commercial imperative to breed them.

This will sound harsh to some but the death of one horse is a relatively small matter when balanced against the economic benefits the industry brings and the cosseted treatment virtually all racehorses enjoy – and the pleasure the sport brings to millions.

But on welfare issues, safety issues, use of the whip and related matters, the racing industry must always be aware that it needs the support of the public, especially the silent majority. Society is changing, people are less connected to horses and the rural world, and the old certainties will not apply for ever.

Wherever there is livestock there is deadstock. That's an old saying. Racing will never be risk free. Nor will flying in a plane, crossing the road, or driving a car.

Racing authorities have taken great steps in recent years to minimise risk as much as they can. But they can never get rid of it completely. As Tuesday showed.

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