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3 horse-racing myths busted for the Melbourne Cup

31 October 2016
A veterinarian's ode to horse racing

Veterinary physiologist Dr Natasha Hamilton addresses perceived issues with horse racing, using science to demonstrate why the Melbourne Cup is not bad for the animals she is passionate about.

Any owner who is in it just for the money is likely to be very disappointed.
Dr Natasha Hamilton.
Dr Natasha Hamilton photographed in a stable with a horse

Dr Natasha Hamilton

For horse racing fans around Australia, the biggest week of the year is about to begin. With this will come the usual protests from anti-racing campaigners, keen to highlight the perceived cruelties of the sport. I, too, used to judge the racing industry harshly, based on what I had seen on TV.

This changed the day I set foot on a racetrack for the first time, when I fell completely in love with the industry. In the interests of full disclosure I have to point out that to this day I continue my involvement as a casually employed race-day official, which I began when I was a PhD student.

So my point of view is based on what I have seen over the last nearly 20 years at the track, and while I don’t have room to discuss all the perceived problems with racing, I would like to address some of the most common misconceptions here.

I will start with the concept of overbreeding: "only 300 out of every 1,000 foals produced will ever start in a race", which implies only 30% of foals will race.

However, the exact quote by JM Bourke in “Wastage in thoroughbreds” is: “1,000 mares were required to produce about 270 foals that finally raced by four years”. What this really means that if you take a random sample, 10 Thoroughbred mares will average three foals that race. This includes mares that are never mated, do not conceive, and never produce foals.

The same paper also studied a random sample of 110 mares, and showed that 69.4% of their foals raced. More recent estimates based on published numbers of live foals and horses racing indicate the true proportion of foals that race to be around 70-74%. Annual foal crops are reducing dramatically (from approximately 18,000 10 years ago to around 13,000 now) without a concurrent reduction in the numbers of horses racing, indicating the industry is becoming more efficient. This may be because our understanding of exercise physiology is increasing, while training facilities are improving.

The next misconception I commonly hear is “racing two-year-olds is cruel; they aren't mature enough". Our group addressed this by comparing the career lengths of 117,000 horses that started racing at different ages. We showed that horses that raced at two years old had significantly longer careers than those that had their first start later in life. . These results agreed with a number of previously published studies from around the world. We caution that this does NOT mean trainers should be pushing their young horses harder – this could cause an increase in injuries.

Injuries are more common in the first year of training, no matter what age this is, because the horse’s body is adapting. There are also differences between individuals (just like in people), so each horse needs to be considered independently.

The final misconception I would like to address is: "When it broke its leg, they didn't want to pay for it to get better, so they just put it down ". This one saddens me the most, because it couldn't be further from the truth. There are two problems with this statement. The first is the idea that horse owners are only “in it for the money”. While there is no doubt that some owners do strike it lucky by buying a (relatively!) cheap horse that wins a lucrative race, this is not usually the case.

It costs on average $70,000 to purchase a racehorse, and between $30,000 - $50,000 per year to train it. However, 63% of horses that race will earn less than $10,000 each year, and less than 3% will make $100,000 a year to cover their costs. So any owner who is in it just for the money is likely to be very disappointed.

Horses are euthanised on the track (or later in hospital after diagnostic imaging) because they are unable to recover from these injuries. The reasons for this apply to all horses that break their legs, not just racehorses, and have been addressed well in this blog in the Guardian here. The good news is that with advances in research and veterinary medicine, catastrophic injury rates will decrease over time.

No one cares more for racehorses than those who care for them on a daily basis. While industry run re-homing programs and facilities have been established for many years – for example see www.nswtrt.org.au/ and www.thoroughbrednews.com.au/australia/default.aspx?id=48279 – there has recently been exciting developments in this space, with significant resources now allocated to finding careers for horses after racing. Thoroughbreds are wonderfully versatile, intelligent athletes that are suitable for nearly all equine pursuits.

A recent study estimated that 6.3% of racehorses are sent to the knackery after racing ; however, the goal is for every horse to find a home after racing. As someone who is lucky enough to work with and study these beautiful animals, I certainly can’t argue with that.

Dr Natasha Hamilton is a senior lecturer in veterinary physiology. She also works as a casual raceday official for RacingNSW and has received research funding from Racing Australia.

Vivienne Reiner

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