Influential racing figures are bracing for the fallout from the horse slaughter scandal to impact on the remaining spring carnival and beyond unless racing authorities can restore public trust in how thoroughbreds are treated after they retire from the sport.
Initial reports suggest the grim lead-up to Australia’s second-biggest weekend of racing has not significantly reduced wagering or track-side attendances in Melbourne and Sydney, but leading syndicates, bookmakers and trainers warn the sport faces a longer-term threat from loss of public confidence.
Australian Thoroughbred Bloodstock owner Darren Dance said footage broadcast by the ABC of thoroughbreds being mistreated and killed at a Queensland abattoir would make it difficult to convince young, would-be horse owners to enter the sport.
“We are looking for the next generation of owners, and some of the news that's in the industry at the moment, I can't see how we can possibly attract new participants,’’ he said.
Bookmaker Matt Tripp, the chief executive of BetEasy, predicted the financial damage would be felt in coming weeks, as people disgusted by the callous treatment of retired horses lost their appetite for punting on the races.
“It is very hard to acquire customers when our best product is on the nose,’’ he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
“This two-week block is where we up the ante on advertising, we up the ante on generosity and promotional offers. It is hard to get them in the door when the whole world now knows that this part of racing has been handled so poorly. It is a real blow for us.”
Although the plight of bookmakers is unlikely to garner public sympathy, betting turnover underpins the racing industry. Flemington-based trainer Mike Moroney questioned the failure of racing authorities to decisively act on a looming problem before now.
“We are putting a lot of money in and we question where all the money is going,’’ Moroney said. "They say all the time they are doing studies on things. But they should have seen this coming.”
Racing Australia, Racing Victoria, Racing NSW, the Victorian government and corporate bookmakers all support the establishment of a national register to track every horse bred for racing from the time it is foaled to when it dies. Under current regulations, racing authorities stop accounting for horses when they retire.
The proposed national register, which is currently the subject of a Senate inquiry, has received only tacit support from the peak breeding body, Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, and is expected to face political resistance from National Party MPs concerned at associated costs.
Federal Department of Agriculture vets are assisting a Queensland government investigation into Meramist, the Caboolture abattoir at the centre where staff were secretly filmed by animal rights activists inflicting cruelty on horses, including ex-racehorses, before they were slaughtered.
Trainer Danny O’Brien said the “heartbreaking” footage broadcast by the ABC 7.30 program showed the sport needed to be smarter at tackling the problem.
“The only positive is that I know the money is there; maybe we have to get more sophisticated with how we use it,’’ he said. “One per cent of prize money in NSW and Victoria is being put away to help these initiatives so we have to get better."
Public confidence in racing has been pummelled this spring with a trifecta of scandals: disgraced trainer Darren Weir facing criminal charges for animal cruelty; the slaughter of retired racehorses; Weir’s stable foreman Jarrod McLean facing allegations that he doped one of their horses with EPO.
The weight of scandal did not deter weekend racegoers, with more than 40,000 people attending Randwick for the running of The Everest and 28,000 at Caulfield.
Melbourne Racing Club chief executive Josh Blanksby said the final wagering figures for the Caulfield Cup would be available on Wednesday. A Ladbrokes spokesman said betting turnover was slightly down from last year at Caulfield and up at Randwick.
Matt Tripp said the more telling figures would be those reported from midweek and country races this week and throughout the spring. These are the meets which support racing beyond the occasional punters who flock to the Melbourne Cup and other big races.
“I think in a month’s time, I’ll be able to give you a really accurate read on the damage it has done,’’ he said. “I think there will be some lasting effects. It won’t be just a flash in the pan. This will take some time to recover from.”
Peter Moody, the former trainer of Black Caviar who now works for the corporate bookmaker Ladbrokes, said racing was resilient and had always recovered from scandal. He said that this time, the environment has changed.
“We are probably dealing with a different demographic these days. Racing has always been in the DNA of Australia but we need to appreciate that the DNA of Australia has changed and is continually changing," he said.
“We now have to cater for an audience which has very strong views on animal welfare and rightly so. What we saw last week is very much in the minority but even one case is too many.”