By Rob Harris and Latika Bourke
Updated October 29, 2020 — 10.51pm first published at 8.09pm
Retired racehorses are still being slaughtered for pet food at knackeries across NSW, some potentially in direct breach of tough new racing industry welfare standards designed to stop the inhumane treatment of thoroughbreds.
Hours of footage obtained by animal activists revealed up to a dozen identified former racehorses or recently retired breeding mares were killed at one knackery between March and August this year.
Racing NSW on Thursday launched an investigation after The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age handed it hidden-camera footage, invoices and logbooks from two knackeries in northern NSW.
Among the horses killed is thought to be a seven-year-old gelding, which won five country races and $120,000 in prize money and had last raced at Queanbeyan in December last year just four months before it was slaughtered.
NSW Racing's general manager of integrity, Marc van Gestel, said the state was the only body in Australia that had prohibited horses in its jurisdiction from being sent to a knackery or abattoir.
"If Racing NSW's investigations establish that any of those horses remained in the ownership of persons under [its] jurisdiction, Racing NSW will prosecute those persons for any breaches of its rules," Mr van Gestel said.
"To further address this issue, Racing NSW is also lobbying the NSW government to make it a criminal offence in NSW for any thoroughbred horse to be sent to a knackery, even if they have been rehomed to persons outside of racing."
In 2017, Racing NSW introduced laws and regulations that no owner or trainer can put their horse anywhere other than a good home when it leaves the racing industry. The rules also require no horse be sent directly to a knackery or directly to a saleyard, from which it may end up at a knackery. Racing NSW boss Peter V'Landys said at the time animal welfare was one of the "great issues" racing would have over the next fives years and that NSW would be proactive about ensuring it.
Penalties can be imposed for those caught breaching the rules but activists have long complained the industry lacks control over where its horses end up and how they are treated and needs a livestock tracing scheme.
Mr van Gestel said initial investigations of the information provided by the Herald and The Age indicate that the majority of the horses identified had been rehomed to persons outside racing and were outside Racing NSW's jurisdiction.
Mr van Gestel said one broodmare, which the activists claimed had been killed, former Godolphin galloper Diambra, was found by authorities this week to be alive and in foal in regional Victoria. Another had only ever raced in Queensland and was outside NSW Racing's jurisdiction.
Last night Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick claimed under parliamentary privilege the leaked documents included proof four horses from Broombee Stud, owned by billionaire retailer Gerry Harvey, had been sent to the knackery within the past 12 months.
Mr Harvey said as a result of the Herald and The Age's inquiries he asked his studs to check their records and confirmed that up to nine thoroughbreds had been sent to knackeries over the last three years.
"I've said to him 'mate, you can never do that again,'" Mr Harvey said. "I take responsibility, but at the end of the day you can’t have your finger everywhere," he said, noting that he owns 1500 horses across Australia and New Zealand.
The hours of footage show branded thoroughbreds being prodded with sticks while being herded from holding pens and shot in knock boxes.
Footage from Kankool Pet Foods in Willow Tree, in the NSW Liverpool Plains, also shows several young unraced horses, including yearlings and ex-racing mares retired into breeding, were among those microchipped thoroughbreds turned into pet food.
The knackery, which is not prevented by any laws or racing rules from processing horses for pet food, would not comment when contacted by the Herald.
Chris Delforce, from the Farm Transparency Project, said the information was gathered by activists and industry whistleblowers.
"I was horrified to see this footage and for our suspicions to be confirmed that this is still happening regularly in NSW despite all of the racing industry's assurances," he said.
"Yet again it's come down to the brave work of whistleblowers and activists working with our organisation to investigate and expose this cruelty."
Last month, a NSW trainer was banned for three years after two retired thoroughbreds he thought he was rehoming for equine purposes were slaughtered by a third party.
Farm Transparency Project is an offshoot of the militant animal rights movement Aussie Farms, which last year had its charity status stripped by the federal government for creating a website that targeted producers across the country.
It has openly campaigned to shut down horse racing and intensive livestock farming and to "bring transparency to industries that depend on secrecy" to reduce the suffering of animals.
Mr Delforce said some activists broke the law to obtain some of the footage but said that it was justified in this case, because of the public's right to know what was going on behind the stable doors. "While trespass was involved in obtaining some of this evidence, unfortunately, we've seen countless times that this is a necessity when industries refuse transparency and accountability," he said.
"They were never going to look into this for themselves so the burden fell, as it often does, to us." He urged Racing NSW to ensure its investigation would not be a whitewash. "Racing NSW needs to take some serious responsibility and guarantee a full and open investigation, not an industry whitewash or passing of the buck," he said.
Among the horses killed was a 16-year-old broodmare, Bahrain, who had been retired from breeding only three months earlier. Because it was retired from racing before 2017 is it not governed by the NSW code.
Breeding is not covered by NSW Racing's code but in February this year the Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group was established to regulate the fate of horses once they leave the industry. The group, headed by former Victorian premier Denis Napthine and that includes RSPCA Australia, will make recommendations later this year.
Regarded as the leader in industry welfare, Racing NSW has spent more than $26 million, in addition to a deduction of 1 per cent of all prize money paid, on purchasing and developing properties for use in the care, retraining and rehoming of retired NSW thoroughbreds.
It has also introduced an excluded-persons list for any person, irrespective of their connection to the industry, whom Racing NSW considers unsuitable to be responsible for the aftercare of thoroughbred horses.
Despite efforts to improve traceability within the racing industry, it remains unclear what impact it has had on the killing of horses at Australia's abattoirs and knackeries.
No data is available to determine how many horses are killed at the facilities each year, which has meant that any associated welfare issues are also hidden from public view.