Thoroughbred racing and a sense of identity are not the most comfortable of bedmates. For converts, race is the sport of kings, where man and beast come together in a battle that is poetry in motion. To its detractors, it's just a sport, but a business, and not particularly honorable.
On one day of the year, however, identity seems less problematic. On the first Tuesday of November, Australians fervently recall that they are the greatest players in the world having fun at the Melbourne Cup. In Victoria, everyone gets the day off from work. For a horse race.
And it's a big deal. In 2018, bookmaker Tabcorp made more than $ 170 million in Flemington card billing – and $ 115 million in the World Cup alone – on its TAB and UBET brands. This year, turnover on the eight main days of the spring races, which includes the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival, is expected to reach $ 1 billion.
"The Melbourne Cup is an iconic event and one of the greatest races in the world," Nicholas Tzaferis, Tabcorp's general manager of corporate communications, told Guardian Australia. “The Cup is the largest single betting event for our TAB business. We estimate that over three million Australians are betting on TAB in the Melbourne Cup. ”
For a sport that longs for but rarely gets dominant exposure, racing has long subsisted on the truism that there is no bad publicity. The industry has had its share of scandals over the years, from doping and ring-ins to jockeys betting on other horses and most things in between. But running is nothing but tough. Despite the integrity issues that can and should pose a serious existential threat, racing somehow manages to break out of the other side and maintain its niche as an accepted, even estimated, part of Australian culture.
But times are changing. While some sections of society may be prepared to turn a blind eye to the transport of the rat sack element of sport, the issue of animal welfare is proving more difficult to bear. The wave of equine deaths on Melbourne Cup day in recent years – since 2013, six horses have died in Flemington on Australia's biggest race day – has brought the issue into focus, leading the #NupToTheCup movement and a general increase in welfare awareness. to be racehorses. It is still the race that stops a nation, but now divides it.
Playing at the Melbourne Cup is a big deal for bookmakers. Photography: Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images
The stakes are even higher after ABC's exposure to mistreatment and massacre of retired runners at Australian jewelry stores. Racing Australia claims that about 34 former racehorses annually, or less than 1% of the population, end up in a slaughterhouse, but ABC research suggests the number is a little further north.
"The racing industry has hidden behind fake studies it commissioned and data collected from a compulsory retirement form," said Elio Celotto of the racehorse protection coalition. “They have now turned out to be wrong and must accept the fact that they have a serious welfare problem. We estimate the actual number to be over 10,000. "
Race managers promptly changed to damage control, promising to eliminate offenders. "The Commission strongly advocates the welfare of all race animals and invites the race community and the public to report concerns about race animal welfare for research," said Ross Barnett, Queensland Racing Health Commissioner .
In New South Wales horses are forbidden to be sent to a jewelry store if they "predominantly reside" in that state. "If this is happening, we will put the full force of the law against them because they are violating the rules of racing," said Racing NSW Chief Executive Peter V & # 39; landys.
Landys, in turn, identified animal welfare as the biggest threat of racing for some time, introducing the above rule and devoting a percentage of the cash prize to equine welfare, among other initiatives. And now Racing Victoria is following suit, last week announcing a $ 25 million program to ensure racehorse welfare from cradle to grave. A key element of the commitment is to support a responsible national breeding campaign "to reduce the number of thoroughbreds who end up with no options".
These are the steps in the right direction, but more is needed. Last week, Fairfax journalist Peter FitzSimons criticized Vlandys for saying he was proud of Racing NSW's animal welfare program, suggesting that the administrator should give his role as chair of the ARL committee to focus on racing. "He will and should have his hands full, solving the atrocities of racing."
Channel 7's Bruce McAvaney also commented. “As a small owner, it made me feel ashamed. And not knowing is not good enough, ”McAvaney said of the ABC report.
The effects are being felt elsewhere. Megan Gale, the regular bird cage, is boycotting the Melbourne Cup this year after singer Taylor Swift and actress Lana Condor withdrew from the event. Swift and Condor cited scheduling issues, but the social media reaction to their Flemington appearances could not be missed.
These are interesting times for horse racing. The exposure you crave now has swords, but not for the reasons you might have in mind.