The ugly truth of spring racing
Here we go again – time to dig out the fascinator, grab a six-pack of Bacardi Breezers and wobble off on impractically high heels to Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival.
At any other time of the year, the races are likely to be associated with dodgy bookies, the barbarism of jumps racing and problem gambling. Around this time, however, we start referring to it as the “sport of kings”, an elite, glamorous cultural event.
But how glamorous is it really when, for every one expensively-preened Fashions on the Field entrant, there are five young men wearing that consistently hilarious combination of tux and Aussie flag boxers? You can bet that while Lillian Frank or Peter Jago praise the young ladies present for returning to the modest and elegant trends of the 1920s, most people won’t go home without seeing at least a dozen women clutching a pair of vomit-speckled stilettos.
With all that sophistication on show, you could easily forget the “real” reason for the Spring Racing Carnival; that is, so that a bunch of people who don’t appear to care for racing at any other time of the year can barrack and bet as a large horse gets flogged by a small man. That isn’t sport - it’s the exploitation of animals to satisfy some primal idea of fun.
Putting aside other cruelties associated with the industry, such as the routine dog-fooding of those animals that are injured or just too slow, whipping a horse doubtlessly causes some distress and pain – if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point in the practice. Recently introduced (and fiercely contended) Australian Racing Board rules whereby a “padded whip” can only be used a limited number of times during a race surely acknowledge both the fact that whipping causes a degree of pain and that the public feels uneasy watching a horse being relentlessly beaten by its rider. Indeed, a recent study from the University of Sydney found that whipping race horses doesn’t increase their chance of winning.
But animal welfare is often the last thing on people’s minds as they take another dainty sip from their mini bottle of Moet through a straw and loudly urge on the favourite in the fifth, betting slip in hand.
Last year, in the Melbourne Cup alone – a race that lasts less than four minutes – Australians bet over $140 million. Across the day, more than $250 million in bets were placed and the betting industry proudly claimed that over eighty per cent of Australians had some kind of wager. To put this in perspective, Australia’s total funding in response to the East Africa Food Crisis, in which over 13 million people are at risk, currently sits at $128 million.
It seems odd that, at a time when we are publicly debating the relationship between problem gambling and depression, suicide, family breakdown and homelessness, we still set aside a public holiday to celebrate the fun and tradition of gambling. But of course, we don’t call it “gambling” in October and November – it’s more palatably referred to as “having a flutter”, an occasion when we can forget about collecting our 4c petrol vouchers for a short while and simply throw away $50 on a wildly unpredictable outcome.
And to what end all this cruelty and money wasted? Do punters get to share in the millions of dollars in prize money on offer? Do any of the profits go towards a worthy cause? No, it is all simply in order to generate income for already-wealthy horse trainers, owners and betting agencies.
While it might be nice to have a distraction at the end of the football season and few people would complain about getting a day off, let’s not forget that this unsophisticated, primitive form of entertainment comes at a cost, and that cost is borne by the animals involved, the problem gamblers and their families – not to mention those young “fillies” who wake up on the floor of a portaloo at Flemington on Wednesday morning. Surely the time has come for us to recognise that horse racing is neither a sport nor a cultural event. And while we’re at it, let’s throw out those dreadful fascinators once and for all.
Sarah McKenzie is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her opinion pieces have been published in The Age, Herald-Sun, Canberra Times, National Times, and more.
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