With Australia's annual Spring Racing Carnival unrolling before us, one controversial billboard in Melbourne has started a conversation that should have been had some time ago.
The billboard, courtesy of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR), featured a photo of a dead horse alongside the words, "Is the party really worth it?"
To me the answer is obvious, but the racing industry has unsurprisingly denounced the billboard, branding it "distasteful" and "highly inappropriate," as well as an "inaccurate and dishonest portrayal of modern racing."
With its record on animal welfare suddenly called into question, the industry has hastened to reassure the public that the horses' welfare is its number one priority (definitely not the money), that a negligible number die each year racing (this depends on your interpretation of "negligible") and that, get this, 98 percent of ex-racehorses live out their days in the idyllic surrounds of a farm or an equestrian or recreational riding facility.
Apparently, the racing industry has conducted "surveys" of ex-racehorses, which have demonstrated conclusively that they are "much loved and cared for animals." Of course, those that wind up as pet food may be inclined to disagree with that assertion, but I'm guessing they didn't feature in these surveys.
The truth is that horse racing is understandably associated with a great deal of physical and emotional stress for the animals. The high concentrate diets fed during training often lead to gastric ulcers, with one study of racehorses at Randwick finding that 89 percent had stomach ulcers, and many developed bleeding ulcers within eight weeks of the commencement of their training.
The physical exertion of racing also leads to what's known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, which is a fancy way of saying that a large proportion of horses bleed into their lungs and windpipes. A study by the University of Melbourne using endoscopes found that 50 percent of racehorses had blood in their windpipes, while 90 percent had blood deeper in their lungs.
Beyond the obvious physical and mental devolution associated with racing, the problem of "wastage," the discarding of unwanted racehorses, is not the trivial matter the industry would have us believe.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney attempting to track ex-racehorses discovered that approximately 40 percent leave the industry each year on account of illness, injury, behavioral problems, or simply poor performance.
So where do they all go? To these mythical retreats the industry alludes to?
Obviously it is difficult to estimate the exact percentage of ex-racehorses among those slaughtered each year for either human consumption abroad or domestic pet consumption, but the RSPCA estimates that a significant number are sent to knackeries and abattoirs every year, which in turn sustains a burgeoning horsemeat industry.
One study found that 53 percent of horses examined at one Australian export abattoir carried brands indicating that they were of racing origin. Admittedly this is only one study and one abattoir, but certainly there's a large disparity between this finding and the 2 percent figure touted by the industry.
Anecdotally, a farm animal sanctuary in Tasmania I have visited several times, Brightside Farm Sanctuary, has rescued many former racehorses from the grisly fate that awaits them at knackeries. Attending venues such as the Echuca meat pens in Victoria, Brightside's team does all they can to outbid the vulturine pet food suppliers who frequent such auctions.
It's clear that once many animals can no longer turn a profit for their human beneficiaries, they become a liability. And, as such, many find their way to meat pens like Echuca. Even sadder is the fact that many of these horses, as evidenced by their race brands, had, won a fortune for their owners in a previous life.
The fall from glory is profound.
It's difficult to see the industry's espousal of its many "virtues" as anything other than propaganda, carefully crafted for consumption by its many impassioned supporters. Penetrate this veil of faux glamour and it's clear that the industry represents little more than glorified gambling and the manifest exploitation of animals.
I have no doubt that there are those in the industry who love their horses, treat them well, and see to their wellbeing in their twilight years. I'm equally certain that they are in the minority.
Even so, no animal I love would ever be subject to the rigors of racing.