Jumps racing: there’s a big hurdle in this debate

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It’s not often I feel inclined to offer a little advice to editors of  newspapers.

But, what the heck, I worked fulltime in newspapers for 25 years, so indulge me for a couple of minutes.

Image from the article Whats in it for the horse, asks scientist. Click the picture to go to the story.
Image from the article “What’s in it for the horse, asks scientist”.

My advice is pretty simple, really: never let your racing reporters leap to the defence of their beloved sport over the issue of horse deaths in jumps racing.

For those not up with this issue, the topic is stirring controversy in Victoria.

The current Australian season is unfolding with a sword perched squarely over the sport’s neck, waiting to fall if this season’s death toll of horses is deemed too high.

It currently stands at two, compared with 10 who died in Victoria last season (and another two that died in South Australia).

For a time last season, Racing Victoria suspended jumps racing pending yet another review of safety within the sport.

Australian racing writers leapt to the defence of jumps racing, offering up half-cocked shoot-from-the-lip defences of the sport that were bound to get bountiful approval from their mates at Racing Victoria and their friendly local racehorse trainers.

I read them, shook my head, and moved on.

Now, the issue has had a little airing on this side of the Tasman, and – you guessed it – another racing writer has leapt to the defence of the sport. Yet another couple of minutes of my life have been wasted reading what I’m sorry to say is effectively a bunch of claptrap.

I don’t actually have a problem with racing writers defending jumps racing, but I’ve yet to see one mount a defence that might lift it from the ranks of anything other than budgie-cage lining.

New Zealand Herald racing writer Mike Dillon has waded into the debate and his logic and arguments have failed to break the mould.

By breaking the mould, I mean look at the facts without clouding the issue with a whole bunch of mis-related facts that he possibly believes pass as entertaining writing.

So what has provoked Dillon to leap to the defence of jumps racing?

Apparently, a weekend newspaper sports columnist didn’t much like what he saw in the Waikato Hurdles at Te Rapa 10 days ago.

It seems a horse collapsed and died from a heart attack, not from a jumps fall that proved fatal.

This would appear to be a major points victory for Dillon. No broken legs. No need for a lethal injection. A perfectly splendid outcome.

Or perhaps not. I never saw the race, but Sunday Star Times reporter Barry Lichter began his account thus: “Leading jumps jockey Tommy Hazlett reckons he’s lucky to be alive after yesterday’s nightmarish Waikato Hurdles, where riders and horses were left sprawled all over the course and fallers outnumbered the finishers.”

This spectacle has failed to deter Dillon from launching into his supposed defence of jumps racing. It seems the columnist he was criticising did not appear to much like the mayhem, carnage and death he apparently witnessed.

“That columnist would clearly like to see jumps racing BANNED,” the insightful Dillon asserted.

Sadly, it was all downhill from here. Those racing-reporter genes just can’t be helped.

Dillon goes on to explore deaths in a range of other sports such as ice hockey, American football, and even  – horrors of horrors – “the beautiful game” of football. Ban ’em, said Dillon, his tongue firmly in his cheek, of course.

It wasn’t that Dillon’s comment piece was completely devoid of facts. For example, we learn that football has claimed no fewer than 76 people in the last 113 years, the latest on May 8.

However, it was devoid of any fact that might be useful in looking at the issue of jumps-racing deaths.

Dillon did offer us this gem: “Horses actually love jumping.”

Maybe they do, but I’ve never seen a horse jump anything when it had the option of walking around it.

Let’s boil this issue down.

Everything we do involves risk and return. A lot of people have played soccer and it seems a few have died. That’s tough. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that people have died in ice hockey, or motor racing, or figure-skating, or whatever sport you care to choose.

The difference is that the participants choose to take part in their sport and, we expect, understand the risk, no matter how small.

Horses don’t have that choice.

It is the size of the jumps-racing risk that has a growing number of people uneasy about the sport in Australia.

I’ll use Australia as an example, given that the issue has had a much more public airing across the Tasman.

Most Australian states have banned the sport, but Victoria and South Australia still allow it.

Let’s quote the Victoria RSPCA (which believes jumps racing should be banned): “Approximately one in 24 horses that started a jumps racing event last season was killed on the racetrack. Even more alarmingly, it is estimated one in four horses sustained injuries during the same season and have not been seen on the track again.

“The odds that a horse will die or be seriously injured are better than those a punter could expect to be paid by a bookmaker.”

One would hope the odds of survival in New Zealand are rather better than that.

One chance in 24 of dying in a jumps season? I don’t much like those odds, and its transpires your average Australian doesn’t much like them, either.

Independent research has shown 76 per cent of females want jumps racing banned, and 74 per cent of 18-34 year-olds think the same way.

Forty-three per cent of respondents in the survey felt less favourably towards the racing industry because of jumps racing, and 36 per cent felt less favourably towards sponsors of the racing industry because of jumps racing.

Twenty-six per cent either no longer attended any race meetings or would consider not attending in the future because of jumps racing.

The Victoria RSPCA points out that jumps racing comprises just 0.71 per cent of racing turnover in that country. Flat racing carries only a fraction of the risk, and while there are certainly those who would like to see it banned, it is nowhere near in the same risky league as jumps racing.

I guess one shouldn’t get bogged down with tiresome old facts to support an argument.

The columnist that Dillon took issue with was Richard Boock. There is one more observation worth noting. Clearly, Boock did not much like what he saw at Te Rapa. If there’s no enjoyment to be had, perhaps Boock, and many others, will vote with their feet when it comes to viewing a jumps “spectacle”. With the exception of a few glittering days, racing attendances are certainly not what they once were.

So, editors, remember this. When you’re sitting in your office and your racing scribe wanders in and says, “The looney brigade is attacking jumps racing and I have an insightful line of defence I would like to offer up to our beloved readers”, tell them to sod off.

Instead, suggest they write something about the woeful level of industry initiatives and support available to ensure racehorses have a good life after their short track careers.

They almost certainly won’t write the story, but at least they won’t be knocking on your door again for a while.

 

» Campbell Live (TV3) video on the race

 

 

9 thoughts on “Jumps racing: there’s a big hurdle in this debate

  • June 2, 2010 at 8:46 pm
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    bravo neil, bravo. hammer. nail. head.

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  • June 3, 2010 at 1:14 pm
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    The “nightmarish” hurdles race from Waikato was shown on Campbell Live last week. It was appalling.

    Never once was the question of injury to the horses raised – just what a freak race and a spectacle it was.

    I cannot get my head around why the racing industry thinks that this is ok in this day and age. They are truly Jurassic in their attitudes to animal welfare.

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  • June 3, 2010 at 4:08 pm
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    Now this is what I call both an ethical and excellent writer!

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  • June 6, 2010 at 10:40 am
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    The Australians have made the risk to their jumping horses worse by building low jumps that the horses trip over at a gallop. Horses do indeed jump when not ridden…it often happens when riders fall off in a steeplechase and the unhampered horse carries on over the jumps. As I sit in my office I can see two old standardbreds belting around their paddock during a break in the weather, jumping over a drain several times and risking a heart attack to themselves or their owner _ I can see him chewing his fingernails over the fence. My take on it is that there is a lot of BS and hypocrisy on both sides of the argument, from racing people who see jumping racing as a last hope for slow horses, animal rights nutters who would happily see domestic animals become extinct while we all live on imported grain and nuts, and horse owners who source a lot of cheap horses from the racing “industry”.

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  • June 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm
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    A well written article.

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  • June 17, 2010 at 9:49 am
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    Its only cruel to the horses if they are not fit.no different to flat racing heart attack wise.horses do enjoy jumping,in the wild when they are running in a group they will jump things in there way.its natural for them.if they ban jumps racing they should ban all racing and show jumping.

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  • April 28, 2011 at 11:16 pm
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    “Jumps racing should not be banned”

    Jumps racing should not be banned; these horses are being saved from unnecessary death. How are lives saved? You may ask. Let’s say for examples over 5 years, an average of 1000 horses a year go into jump racing instead of the knackery (meaning slaughtered) These horses get a second chance of life. The majority of horses that are in jumps racing will be sent to the knackery, because there is no-where else for them to go. Jumps racing are usually a last resort. If jumps racing was banned over 1000 horses over 5 years would be killed. Jumps racing must not be banned.

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  • May 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm
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    “Jumps racing should not be banned”

    Jumps racing must not be banned. Horses that race in horse jumping are being saved from death. If there is not horse jumping they will be sent to the knackery. Horse jumping is enjoyable for the horses and it befits people.

    Jumps racing must not be banned; these horses are being saved from unnecessary death. How are lives saved? You may ask. Let’s say for examples over 5 years, an average of 1000 horses a year go into jump racing instead of the knackery (meaning slaughtered or killed) These horses get a second chance of life. The majority of horses that are in jumps racing will be sent to the knackery, because there is no-where else for them to go. Jumps racing are usually a last resort. If jumps racing was banned over 1000 horses over 5 years would be killed. Jumps racing must not be banned.

    Horse jumping is a benefit for people and enjoyable for the horses. Horse jumping creates $4.5 billion industry and has a significant impact on our economy. This provides employment for 12,000 people. Horses enjoy horse jumping, in the wild when they are running in a group they will jump anything in their path way. It is natural for them jump hurdles like that. If horses didn’t like doing what they were doing they would buck their trainers off. Horse jumping is good for the horses and people.
    The opposition says that horses are killed by horse jumping. It’s like any sport people can get killed in car racing, ski jumping but these sports aren’t even thought about to be banned.
    Jumps racing must not be banned. Jumps’ racing is saving lives of horses that would have been sent the knackery instead. Horse jumping is a benefit to the horse the world by money it creates. Jumps racing must not be banned.

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  • July 3, 2013 at 7:09 am
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    Horses don’t have a choice? They would rather walk around it? Yep, you’re right. They don’t. Neither do all the eventing horses around the world. They don’t have a choice to do that either. Racing trainers have a better knowledge on getting their horses fit enough for the job… their welfare depends on the performance of these horses. Dead horses don’t bring home a feed for the family, nor do horses who don’t enjoy jumping.

    Reply

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