The dark side of horse racing

After the deaths of two more horses, sparks have once again flared between animal rights groups and the racing community. Trainers and activists both love horses, but only one side has the resources to do anything about it.

At a Taumarunui Racing Club meet in Rotorua at the end of last month, a horse named Assign met a tragic fate. The nine-year-old was in the middle-front of the pack, nosing in for placement, when he took a devastating blow to the leg. He tumbles to the ground but gets back up. His jockey, thrown clear, shows none of the same enthusiasm. Assign bursts forward, a broken leg only apparent after several valiant strides forward. He’s led off the course, fallen from glory but holding onto his dignity. He dies soon after, one of two horses killed at the race meet that day.

Stuff racing correspondent Barry Lichter once described horse racing deaths as tragedies that happen “just like in motor racing or any other human endeavour. And rather than attracting arrows, they should serve only to increase our admiration for the equine athlete, those marvellous creatures who will literally run their hearts out if we ask them.”

According to New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR), there were 17 horse deaths in the 2018-19 racing season. The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) provides a vastly different number, suggesting that up to 2,500 horses are killed annually by the New Zealand horse racing industry.

NZTR is counting deaths by euthanisation on the day of a race. CPR is estimating a number based on the destruction of foals born without the right temperament, and older horses who have become difficult or uneconomical to manage. 

SAFE’s death watch, which lines up with NZTR’s fatality estimates, states that there are uncounted euthanisations off-track as a result of injuries. These injuries, mostly broken legs, are described as “catastrophic” by both sides. Racehorse owners and trainers love their horses, but still breed and raise them knowing full well they will be put in danger and likely killed before the end of their natural life span.

Organisations like SAFE and CPR frequently speak out about the dangers of horse racing. “Horse racing is inherently unethical as the industry exploits and forces these animals into dangerous settings, all for gambling profits and so called ‘entertainment’,” says SAFE spokesperson Marianne Macdonald. “People are gambling on these horses’ lives.”

Horse racing in New Zealand is a $1.6 billion industry that recently received a further financial boost from the government. It’s a lucrative sector, which makes it all the more bewildering that its stars are sometimes retired into the ground instead of stables. “These animals are discarded by trainers when no longer making money and may well end up at a slaughterhouse,” says Macdonald.

Anti-horse racing activists protest outside the gates during NZCIS Wellington Cup Day at Trentham Racecourse on January 19, 2019 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

CPR spokesperson Frances Baker is particularly concerned with whipping. “We do not need to whip horses,” she argues. “Horses are sentient beings, just like our pet dog or cat. You may even be charged with animal cruelty if you did this to a dog or cat. Just because it is under the guise of ‘sport’ when done to horses should not suddenly make it acceptable.”

NZTR spokesperson Martin Burns rejects the cruelty allegations, pointing out that rules around racehorse whipping in New Zealand are very strict. “Whip use is something which is monitored very closely and the rules around this are applied stringently,” he says. Whipping is necessary for safety, NZTR says, “as a measure to steer the horse and minimise potential collisions,” and for integrity – or “encouraging due effort from the horse if used when in winning contention or achieving a stakes bearing position”.

“Encouraging due effort” shouldn’t be much of a problem if horses are designed to run fast, as Massey University animal ethicist Professor Craig Johnson says they are. “They are bred to run fast, they are trained to run fast, they are given nutrition that helps them to run fast – everything in that horse’s life is about making it run faster.

“Whether or not they actually enjoy that – I think they probably do. In the same way that human athletes enjoy exercising and being in a race, I think racehorses get positive welfare outcomes from running fast and being in races.”

Burns believes CPR’s distaste for the whip betrays a lack of knowledge of horse racing. “They claim horses are ‘forced’ to race and that whips are part of this which proves they have no understanding of just how difficult it is to get a horse to do something it does not want to do.” Riders, owners, and trainers all genuinely love the animals they work with, he says. “Each racehorse in New Zealand has a team of people working to ensure it is happy and healthy. For many there is also an emotional connection too, which means the loss of a horse on race day impacts on them the same way that the loss of a family member would.”

Thoroughbred owners in New Zealand work to ensure horses are rehomed following their careers, Burn says, and are not killed as often as CPR claims. He says that “the Australian-based CPR has no interest in working to provide a good post-racing life for thoroughbreds, instead continuing to use manufactured figures around claims that horses are slaughtered post-racing.”

Photo: Getty Images

Animal ethicist Craig Johnson agrees that with love and the right care, racehorses can live a good life. “Horses have been bred to be athletes and workers for humanity for a long time and as long as their welfare is looked after, I don’t have a problem with that.”

But while a horse may have been bred as an athlete, it didn’t choose to become one. “Animals are not moral agents,” Johnson says. “A dog, for example, doesn’t get to choose whether it’s a pet dog or whether it’s a working dog. It’s just a dog that’s in the environment that it’s in. So when we assess the welfare of those animals, I’m really looking at the quality of life the animal has, being in the situation that it’s in.”

The situation racehorses are in is a dangerous one, although New Zealand is the safest racing jurisdiction in the world, with an average of only 0.73 deaths per 1000 starts in recent years, or about 0.073% of horses dying. “In a perfect world, zero deaths would be the ideal outcome,” says NZTR’s Martin Burns. “This is why we continue to work towards the safest possible conditions for our horses and jockeys.”

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Of course, there are fatalities in almost all professional sports. The most fatal sport in the human world is base jumping, with a death rate of 0.04%. For a more direct comparison with racing, human marathon running has a death rate of 0.00038%.

The difference is that human athletes are, as Johnson puts it, moral agents. Horses are singular among “athletes” in that they require control and encouragement throughout the race in the form of whipping. 

Asked if there is any way horse racing could become truly cruelty-free, both the SAFE and CPR representatives are dubious. “Ultimately, the horses are being used as commodities,” says CPR’s Frances Baker. “When this is the case, their individual wellbeing and considerations will always be compromised”.

SAFE’s Marianne Macdonald feels the same, and is encouraging racegoers and bettors to rethink their choices. “There are countless other forms of entertainment that New Zealanders can enjoy that don’t involve the exploitation of animals for gambling profits.”


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