Why the racing industry remains at long odds to eliminate horse ‘wastage’

Australia World

Updated November 07, 2019 09:53:45

Jo McKinnon’s love for horses began even before she could walk.

Key points:

  • Close to 14,000 thoroughbred foals were born last year in Australia
  • The average yearling fetched more than $350,000 at Sydney’s Easter Sales
  • Leading trainer Richard Freedman says the industry has “got to look at the number of horses we breed”

“Apparently back then, I was completely enamoured with the animal,” she said.

McKinnon’s mother was a keen equestrian rider, and each year she would bring her daughter with her as she went from stable to stable, meeting with some of Victoria’s leading trainers.

“Most of those trainers back then just needed to move those horses on,” she said.

“We would give them a decent break in the paddock to let down from racing, then you would start on that horse when you felt that it was at a turning point.”

The pair was looking for the next potential equine star of the showring, which they would need to firstly re-home and then patiently re-train.

“They don’t all make the grade, but you give it your best shot,” she said.

It’s a reality that hasn’t been lost on the now-racing journalist and commentator, as discussion around horse welfare lingers throughout the Spring Carnival.

“[Re-training] can be dangerous, it can be very challenging, it can be very disappointing,” she said.

“The number that would go on to become elite competitors and the ideal equestrian mount; it was the minority of those horses, mainly just through temperament and soundness issues.”

Last breeding season, around 14,000 thoroughbred foals hit the ground in Australia.

Thousands are being retired each year and not all of them are adequately re-purposed.

While many successful female racehorses go on to have a breeding career, geldings and slower runners are often exposed to racing’s wastage threat.

An ABC expose of widespread slaughter of racehorses for pet food and human consumption in New South Wales and Queensland has led to increased scrutiny of the industry nationwide.

“I think we have to be realistic and we may have to accept that a certain number of horses will be [euthanased],” leading trainer Richard Freedman said.

“[But] if we get a coordinated effort and if we are working from a number of angles, to reduce the problem, we can make a significant impact.”

Owning the problem

Weekend Hussler is one gelding living out a happy retirement.

In 2007 and 2008, the flashy bay took racing by storm, notching up seven Group One wins, including the Caulfield Guineas and George Ryder Stakes.

These days, he spends his time nurturing the next generation of racing superstars while lunching on the lush paddocks of Edinburgh Park Stud, near Wingham on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

The owners went out of their way to find “the Hussler” a new home after racing.

“The wife of the horse’s trainer, Ross McDonald, before he passed away, came up and said ‘we would love you to take Weekend Hussler’ and I was honoured,” farm owner Ian Smith said.

“Now he looks after the younger colts, from when they are weaned off their mothers.”

McKinnon said more racehorse owners should be encouraged to take a greater interest in an animal that has been racing under their name during its younger years.

Currently, most horses are passed on to new owners once they finish racing, with very little contact or monitoring taking place once the animal has been re-homed.

“As far as I am concerned, you are the legally listed owner of that horse, it is your responsibility,” McKinnon said.

The way in which the industry educates and informs owners during a horse’s racing career, could also be a great way to ensure participants do not sell and forget their former stars.

“What are we doing to build that bond?” McKinnon asked.

“With that bond will come a better sense of responsibility.

“Sadly, and this is through 20-odd years at the coal face of the industry, it’s probably fair to say many [owners] don’t have a great knowledge of the animal.”

Freedman, who has plenty to do with owners through his work as a trainer and broadcaster, argues reform of the system is necessary to avoid losing track of horses.

“We have got to make it easier for owners to continue their relationship with the horse once it has left the racetrack,” he said.

Freedman added that racing’s current approach to ownership, whereby large syndicates and minority shares of horses are allowed to be taken, does not foster a sense of responsibility.

“It’s a very different circumstance for a person who perhaps owns a larger percentage of a horse — perhaps 25 per cent or more — they feel very responsible for that horse,” he said.

The wagering dilemma

The whole racing industry is funded by commissions taken from bets, which are paid by bookmakers, including the publicly owned wagering operator, Tabcorp.

Apart from recently reported declines across the Melbourne Cup Carnival, wagering on racing in Australia has steadily increased over the past decade.

The racing industry has responded to this demand like any commercially driven business would; by creating more product.

“During my shift I was commentating on up to 80 or 90 races a day,” said McKinnon, who used to work as a host on broadcaster Sky Racing.

As wagering revenue has flowed and competition between separately governed racing states intensified, prize money for winning races has been pushed to all-time highs.

This has all fuelled unprecedented demand from the breeding industry.

In April 2019, the Easter Yearling Sales recorded their second-strongest result.

At the sales, 19 yearlings went for more than $1 million dollars each, while the sale average was $356,372.

“I think we have got to look at the number of horses we breed,” Freedman said.

McKinnon says it is time for leading racing administrators to take a look in the mirror.

“The word that nobody seems to be bold enough to use in these conversations is what factor is greed playing in all of this?” McKinnon said.

“Is it time to maybe look at the unfortunate reality that are stemming from this quest for money and all these things?

“Racing can be a positive experience, win lose or draw, it doesn’t have to be centred around being first past the post — it’s a journey that hopefully you come away from knowing a bit more about thoroughbreds and racing.

“How much the industry is doing to encourage that knowledge to be built, I am not sure.”

Topics: sport, horse-racing, animal-welfare, australia

First posted November 07, 2019 05:59:20

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