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The near inimitable Marx Brothers made a point of taking comedy to the races in 1937. Horse racing is central – as joke, as investment, as potential saviour for the doomed Standish Sanitarium. Footballers, billionaires and workers do the same thing, sans the comedy but more of the sanatorium. They go to the races, riding the crest of obscene, unearned success on the back of equine genius.
There is no getting away from the performing animal as show, toy, escape, distraction, or even, in some cases, deviancy. Money enters the equation, because it always tends to. The performance of an animal before loons, drunks and tarts is not something that is particularly new. Even prior to the creation of moneyed middle class twats came the Roman public, eager to see animals in contest with spear, shield and human sacrifice. Entertainment and the animal kingdom have always been dual aspects of human pursuit.
The Melbourne Cup, held on the first Tuesday of every November, has become a big fixture and fix, Australia’s narcotic escape from affluent and dull dispositions. In 1895, Mark Twain would write on his trip through Melbourne that there was nothing else like it, this “festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation.” It garners a global television audience of 700 million. It is the high point of an industry that employs 64,000 people in some capacity. What the equine lobby says usually goes.
This is raw capitalist excitement – the ownership of thoroughbreds, nimble running beasts, big performances, combined with the tart effect, the well dressed prats in ties with companions boasting fascinators eager to make a buck or facilitate a bonk as the champagne is guzzled. This is the primitive ritual in concert with the consumerist urge.
Some go as far as to call the enterprise glamorous, though it has never shaken off its almost crude dowdiness. Indeed, the animal protection group Animals Australia, opens up its description of animal cruelty in horse racing as calling the pursuit “perhaps the most glamorous image of so-called animal ‘sports’.” There is no talk about the industrial slaughter of animals, nothing to compare with the foreign trade in cattle.
Some horses are even worshipped. The latest in the pantheon of such equine fetishism is Black Caviar, a horse Australians speak about with a misguided, bubbling affection befitting distant relatives. The probably never to be equalled horse in the gush of horse race glamour remains Phar Lap, that curious beast whose disembodied body continues to enchant school children and baffle immigrants. (The Australian racing fraternity always wondered if their American cousins had purposely poisoned the beast near Menlo Park, California in 1932.)
Melbourne Cup horses are the equivalent of quadruped gladiators. Bill Finley, a New York Daily News reporter writing in June 1993, went so far as to remark that such horses are genetic mistakes, running too fast on frames that are too large “on legs that are far too small.” They must perform. If they do not, their value diminishes. They are fed a controlled diet that emphasises high concentrate grains over extended grazing, a regime that tends to produce bleeding ulcers. The racing process itself can lead to internal bleeding, notably in the lungs and windpipe. Drugs may also feature, given to horses to cope with inflammation (the use of corticosteroids) or to cope with bleeding in the lungs (Lasix).
When it reaches a certain point, there is no necessary incentive to spoil them with soft comforts and spatial idylls. Injured horses are simply destroyed, or as the euphemism goes, “put down”. A study in 2005 conducted by the University of Sydney for the First International Equitation Science Symposium found that almost 40 percent of racehorses leave the industry annually due to illness, injury, and simply not making the taxing grade. Destroyed horses tend to end up at knackeries, where they are slaughtered for pet met, or end up at horse abattoirs.
One such conspicuous example took place after this year’s race. The five-year-old Aga Khan-owned mare Verema, a particularly majestic beast, was one such animal who was not going to go into a convalescing nursing stable with the full luxuries. Dr. Brian Stewart, Racing Victoria’s head of veterinary equine and welfare (much like a quack who presides over injured gladiatorial warriors) spoke with “regret” that “Verema had to be euthanised after suffering a fracture to a right foreleg during the running of the Emirates Melbourne Cup” (Herald Sun, Nov 5). Such an accident was “unfortunate” and knowing which side his bread was buttered on, Stewart insisted that such accidents were infrequent in the world of horse racing.
Animal spectatorship demands a long line of worn meat and hearty sacrifice. On closer inspection, the racing industry is a blood bath, a vicious meat cleaver that takes its victims as they come. Jeff Dowsing (Guardian, Oct 31), citing known figures from animal welfare groups, claims that some 25,000 racehorses face the “dog meat” fate.
As the Australian comedian, Victor Hansen, suggested via the ever available Twitter: this is a race that not so much stops the nation, but stops the nation from looking after animals. An apt summary for the racing industry and its ardent backers.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org