Is it illegal to send off a former racehorse for slaughter? How are horses tracked once their track career is over? And what other racehorse welfare issues are still in the spotlight?
By Adam Pengilly
OCTOBER 30, 2020
In the midst of another spring racing carnival, Australia will stop to watch a Melbourne Cup like none before it. There will be no crowds at Flemington, almost no atmosphere and there is little chance we will see another Cup like it. But, however strange the COVID-affected carnival will be, the horseracing industry is still grappling with a familiar problem: how to manage the aftercare of horses when their racing days are finished.
An investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has found up to a dozen retired racehorses and breeding mares were killed at a NSW knackery between March and August this year.
But is it possible to know where every racehorse is sent when their track career is done? What are the other racehorse welfare issues in the spotlight? And how did the horse racing industry react after last year's ABC exposé, which alleged thousands of ex-racehorses were being killed at abattoirs and knackeries?
How many racehorses are bred each year?
According to AgriFutures Australia, the country's thoroughbred breeding industry is worth $1.16 billion per annum to the Australian economy. Punters splurged $21 billion on thoroughbred races in the 2017-18 season.
In the same period, Racing Australia reported 12,898 live foals were registered with the official record-keeper, nearly half of these born in NSW. The number has been steady for the past four years but a far cry from the almost 18,000 foals registered in 2008-09.
A gradual reduction in the size of the breeding industry is not just reflected in the number of thoroughbreds being foaled each year, but the stallions (breeding males) and broodmares (breeding females) used to keep the industry ticking. In 2017-18, there were 609 registered stallions in Australia (down from 891 in 2008-09) and 19,915 broodmares (down from almost 30,000 in 2008-09).
Not every horse born will make it to the racetrack. In fact, a lot won't ever head to the gates for an official race start. Determining how many horses don't make it to the racetrack each year is not easy.
But even given the large number of foals born each breeding season, the country's racing industry has plenty of events to cater for them. Racing Australia says 35,196 horses were entered into either flat or jumps races throughout the country in 2017-18 (10,716 of which were in NSW).
What happens to racehorses when they retire?
Thoroughbreds can live for up to 30 years, so their racing careers are just a tiny fraction of their life cycle. On average, most will race for only two to three years and some will have only a handful of race-starts if they even make it to the track.
Most racehorses, regardless of whether they make it to the track, are "re-homed" for breeding, pleasure or equestrian purposes. The state-based authorities around Australia all have official equine welfare programs for the "re-training" of thoroughbreds, which transition them from racehorses housed in stables to aftercare.
Racing NSW has spent about $26 million on the purchase and upgrade of three properties in the state exclusively for the use of re-training and re-homing ex-racehorses, including Bart Cummings' old property Princes Farm in the Hawkesbury. It also has facilities at Capertee near Lithgow and another at Oxley Island, close to Taree.
An equine welfare fund is partially funded by 1 per cent of prize money for NSW races. Racing Victoria has a similar scheme.
In NSW, racehorses are "re-homed" and "re-trained" with a vast array of people from all spectrums of life – from retired veterans and prison inmates to equestrian and pony club riders – where their behaviour is modified from the cut and thrust of racing life.
But for all the credible transition programs, there is another route horses can take.
Those deemed to be "wastage" are taken to a knackery or abattoir and are killed for their meat, which is either used as pet food or is exported for human consumption.
Racing bodies dispute the figures stated by animal activists about how many racehorses end up being slaughtered. Animal welfare organisation the RSPCA claims about 9000 horses are slaughtered in abattoirs each year. How many are former racehorses? No one can be sure.
Racing officials claim that less than 1 per cent of retired horses in Australia are sent directly to slaughter, but with no comprehensive lifetime traceability system, it is almost impossible to provide an accurate figure. There have been few detailed studies tracking a foal crop.
The Australian Racing Board, now known as Racing Australia, surveyed trainers in 2013 and found that 45 per cent of retired racehorses were used for breeding, 31 per cent were "re-homed" for other purposes, 14 per cent were sent back to their owner, 7 per cent had died and 1 per cent went to an abattoir.
Is it illegal to send racehorses to knackeries?
No. There are no criminal laws against the practice and there is nothing to stop abattoirs killing a horse. Instead, there are racing industry rules that apply to trainers and owners to ensure the welfare of horses from birth, through their racing careers, and then in retirement.
Racing NSW is the only state to have introduced a local rule making it a breach for a trainer, owner or person in charge or with custody of a racehorse (under the state's jurisdiction), including breeders, to send a horse either directly or indirectly to an abattoir or knackery.
In effect, the ban stops the over-breeding of racehorses. But Racing NSW says it's much more than that; it doesn't think any former racehorse should end up in an abattoir or knackery, regardless of how long it's been removed from a racing and breeding career.
Racing NSW has previously paid abattoirs and knackeries to rescue former racehorses when told of their whereabouts. It has then moved the horses to its own properties for aftercare.
It has established "an excluded persons list" of people considered unsuitable for racing industry participants to send their horses to for aftercare.
Other rules include prohibiting participants from disposing of a horse, and subjecting them to penalties if they try to sell or gift a horse to a livestock auction not approved by the regulator. Racing NSW also seizes and buys NSW horses at interstate livestock auctions if it considers the horse is in danger of ending up at an abattoir or knackery.
Two full-time equine welfare veterinarians are employed in NSW to conduct random audits and inspections of retired thoroughbreds, a task performed in conjunction with the state's integrity officials.
One of country NSW's best-known trainers, Riverina-based Trevor Sutherland, was banned for three years in September after two retired horses he thought he was "re-homing" were slaughtered by a third party. Sutherland said he had no idea the person he gave the horses to would ultimately dispose of them. He is appealing against the stewards' decision.
In Victoria, there is no rule of racing to stop a trainer or owner sending a racehorse to an abattoir, dividing Australia's two biggest racing regulators.
As part of announcing a $25-million equine welfare initiative late last year, Racing Victoria chairman Brian Kruger said it was not his organisation's plan to follow NSW's lead and ban trainers and owners from sending racehorses to slaughter. He forecast it would "drive the problem underground and will not solve the problem".
How are horses' whereabouts tracked?
The thoroughbred racing industry has introduced a number of animal welfare initiatives in the past decade, most notably the requirement for thoroughbred owners to notify Racing Australia when their horses retire.
But given horses are often on-sold and passed from party to party after their racing career is finished, is it possible to track everyone? And when does the racing industry's responsibility for the welfare of a racehorse end when they're in the custody of people outside their jurisdiction?
The creation of a national horse traceability register has been put on the agenda again; it would involve a transparent system to track a horse's movements long after they have finished on the track.
What other horse welfare rules are in the spotlight?
While the industry has worked overtime on welfare initiatives for horses once their racing career is complete, it has also had to battle critics of its policies on the track.
Racing Australia has been working on a long-time review of the country's whip policy, which determines how often and when a riding crop can be used during races. The current rule, formalised in 2015, says jockeys can use the whip only five times on a horse before the final 100 metres of any race but their use is largely unrestricted, or at the rider's discretion, in the final stages when most people are watching an event.
Racing Victoria broke ranks with the rest of the country in September, when on the eve of this year's spring carnival, it said it would move a motion for further reform on January 1, ultimately transferring to a model where jockeys are allowed to carry the crop only as a safety tool for riders and horses. It described its position as "essential for the future of Victorian and Australian racing".
"At this time, Australian racing has been left behind when it comes to reforms on whip use," said Racing Victoria chief executive Giles Thompson.
On whip use, overseas racing jurisdictions such as Britain (seven times per race), Ireland (eight), Germany (five) and France (five) have all legislated on a maximum number of times a crop can be used on a horse in a race.
Australia's most-watched race, the Melbourne Cup, has been beset with jockeys flouting the whip rules in recent years. Michael Walker, who rode last year's runner-up Prince Of Arran, was handed one of the largest fines in the race's history. He was given $10,000 punishment for using the whip 12 times – seven more than allowed – before the 100-metre mark, and was forced to close down his social media accounts after the backlash, saying the abuse had "taken its toll".
In the 2018 Melbourne Cup, the riders of the first three horses across the line were either fined or suspended for breaking the whip rules. Winning jockey Kerrin McEvoy was slugged $3000.
The RSPCA says whips should be banned in Australian racing and has lobbied for years for the trial of races where the whip cannot be used for performance-enhancing purposes.
The use of tongue ties on horses, which prevent them from getting their tongue stuck over the bit during a race, has also been in the spotlight in the past year. (The bit is the steering mechanism used to control the horse.) Racing Australia quietly introduced a rule early this year banning a "nylon stocking or adhesive bandage" for tongue ties; they must now be a leather strap or rubber band at least 15 millimetres wide or be made of Lycra and at least 50 millimetres wide.
The RSPCA says tongue ties cause horses pain and anxiety and can damage the tongue by restricting blood flow, an assertion denied by those tending to the horses within the industry.
What has happened since last year's ABC exposé?
An ABC report that claimed alleged acts of cruelty on a mass scale, primarily at a Queensland abattoir, rocked the Australian racing industry in the middle of the 2019 spring carnival.
The report showed footage from hidden cameras of former racehorses being prodded with electric shocks and kicked and said up to 300 thoroughbreds were slaughtered in just 22 days at the Meramist abattoir.
The Queensland government ordered an urgent inquiry into the treatment of the retired racehorses. That inquiry brought about a new rule which means racehorse owners must make at least two genuine attempts to re-home a horse but said there was too much risk that horses would suffer from poor welfare if the slaughter was removed as an option.
It also absolved the racing industry of culpability for the lifetime welfare of horses once their racing and breeding careers were finished. Horses often change hands multiple times once they've finished their days on the track or in the breeding barn.
Western Australia has established a farm to assess horses for re-homing.
The ABC report also prompted the establishment of an independent panel to review racehorse welfare in the country, chaired by former Victorian premier Denis Napthine, a qualified veterinarian. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group claimed to be the broadest horse welfare project held in Australia, has received more than 170 submissions and has interviewed 50 different individuals and organisations. Racing Australia and every state principal racing authority have made submissions to the panel, which is due to report in early December.
Napthine heads the panel featuring Dr Ken Jacobs, a former director of the Australian Veterinary Association, RSPCA chief science and strategy officer Dr Bidda Jones and a former Labor agriculture adviser, Jack Lake.
The steering committee includes Australia's champion trainer Chris Waller, Australian Trainers Association chief executive Andrew Nicholl, Godolphin Australia boss Vin Cox, Victoria Racing Club director Neil Werrett, Newhaven Park Stud owner John Kelly and Australian Jockeys Association chief executive, Martin Talty.