Issues Magazine

Jumps Racing: A “Sport” on Life Support

 Paolo Camera (CC by 2.0)

Paolo Camera (CC by 2.0)

By Tammy Franks

It’s expensive, outdated, deadly and cruel, but the horses are still flying high, risking deadly falls, at South Australian race meetings.

To me a ban on jumps racing has been a no-brainer for decades – or 100 years even, according to Queenslanders who phased out the “sport” a century ago. Western Australia stopped it in 1941, Tasmania followed suit in 2007, while in NSW there has been a formal ban since 1997.

Now, only Victoria and South Australia tolerate jumps racing, a sport that sees one in 115 horses die from racing – a rate 18 times higher than flat racing.

Beneath the public relations hype of glitz and glamour, and the glossy tourism brochures promoting the annual Oakbank Easter Racing Carnival in South Australia, there lies a dark and deadly past and a hidden animal welfare cost.

At every hurdle it’s not a question of who will win but who might die. Understandably, many people are appalled. They’re sick of watching horses die, they’re tired of witnessing jockeys getting injured, and they want action.

Jumps racing is a sport on life support, but no one has the courage to flick the switch – and it isn’t for lack of trying.

In 2011, the Greens brought legislation before the South Australian Parliament to bring an end to jumps racing, legislation that had the heartfelt support of many individuals and organisations including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the body tasked with enforcing the state’s animal welfare legislation, as well as Animals Australia and the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses. Unfortunately, only the Greens and two independents supported the Bill, although Labor MP Ian Hunter – who is now the Minister responsible for animal welfare issues – spoke in favour of a ban but was unwilling to risk the wrath of his party by crossing the floor in support of the Bill. This despite an abundance of evidence that clearly shows that jumps racing is a dying sport, both literally and figuratively.

I can’t imagine the way punters must feel at a jumps meeting when the green screen comes out and horses are put down behind it after suffering a catastrophic injury, as all too frequently occurs. Why subject animals to such unnecessary cruelty in the name of entertainment when we know how risky and dangerous it is to the horses?

Sadly, in recent times we’ve seen many horrific examples of animal cruelty involving Australian animals, from the revolting treatment meted out to our live export cattle overseas to the sadistic treatment of turkeys by abattoir workers in New South Wales. The public has a right to know what’s going on, and they want to know.

Animal cruelty of all descriptions is never okay, especially when it’s in the name of “entertainment”. Jumps racing is one area where we can make real progress quickly by banning it. It’s time to bury the sport rather than more horses.

Embarrassingly, it has been more than 20 years since a Senate Select Committee into Animal Cruelty reported on jumps racing. In 1991, the committee found that jumps racing fatalities and injury rates were unacceptably high and went on to liken it to other barbaric sports including dog fighting, cock fighting, bear baiting and fox hunting.

That was in 1991. The writing has been on the wall for many decades on this issue, and while hurdles and steeplechases may evoke childhood memories of National Velvet, the modern reality of jumps racing in Australia is nothing more than a farce.

But last year saw significant developments, with the South Australian Jockey Club questioning the sport’s economic viability in South Australia.

Jumps racing currently makes up less than one per cent of racing turnover in Australia, and many studies reveal that it is not financially viable. A 2010 study by Ralston and Brackertz quoted Racing Victoria’s own 2001 report, which stated that “jumps racing loses $4.8 million a year. Punters don’t bet on it.”

This year’s Oakbank figures from the TAB affirm this view. On the Saturday the average amount wagered on a jumps race was $179,738 (from two races), while the average amount bet per race (from six flat races) was $251,341. On Easter Monday, TAB turnover was approximately double for the flats races, averaging $158,874 for flat races and $79,049 for jumps races. The conclusion is quite clear: people don’t bet on jumps racing.

Indeed, the Melbourne Cup Carnival chose to stop jumps racing in 2002, following the death of He’s Back on Track in the 2001 event. While jumps racing proponents argued this would have a negative economic impact, the carnival has continued to grow.

Strangely, however, the Oakbank carnival perseveres with jumps racing. The racing meet often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, with numerous horse deaths and injuries commonplace in recent times.

This year, the fact that there were no deaths at Oakbank made headlines. Still, the ratio of falls to starters in steeple racing increased from 2.8 per cent in 2008 to 6.9 per cent by 2010. We know that these falls are affecting horses and they’re affecting jockeys.

It’s clear the sport itself is dying a natural death based on low betting revenue and waning fields. Of Easter Monday’s starters in the premier steeplechase event at Oakbank, only one South Australian horse turned up for the race.

Jumps racing equates to an ever-diminishing segment of the local racing scene. To my knowledge there are no full-time jumps racing trainers, jockeys or stables in South Australia.

We know what needs to be done, so why isn’t it happening?

Despite the best efforts of animal welfare organisations, people like Thoroughbred Racing South Australia Chairman Frances Nelson QC seem intent on defending the sport. In a recent column on news website AdelaideNow, Nelson went on the attack, saying anti-jumps activists “manipulate the media ... They suggest horses are injured in every jumps race and that a horse is only ever exposed to injury in a jumps race.”

This certainly isn’t true. Of course horse racing is intrinsically risky – we’re talking about 500 kg of horse and another 60–70 kg of rider hurtling around a track in all sorts of weather – but jumps racing is by far the most risky and dangerous form of horse racing. We are talking about an 18 times greater risk of death for a horse than for one in a flats race.

Nelson continued in her AdelaideNow column, stating: “More horses were seriously injured in the Olympic three-day event in London than in a whole season of jumps racing in Australia” – a claim vehemently refuted by Olympian Gillian Rolton in a comment on the site.

“At the London 2012 Olympic Games, there were a total of four horse falls during the Eventing Cross Country phase, and only one of these horses was slightly injured. After treatment, this horse returned home,” Rolton continued, confirming that she had checked her facts with the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Lausanne director.

Still, jumps racing enthusiasts try to maintain that horses like to jump despite evidence from equine behaviourists that horses are naturally adverse to jumping horizontal obstacles unless trained to do so.

Nelson has been quoted describing the bond between horse and rider in a steeplechase as “the closest thing to magic ... You come down the hill and when you meet the fence right and you’re flying, it’s fabulous,” she told The Advertiser in 2009.

Unfortunately the results can be less than “fabulous” if you don’t “meet the fence right”. As we know, injuries for horses and jockeys alike are commonplace.

A Menzies Research Institute of Tasmania study looking at the number of injuries to race jockeys found that thoroughbred jumps racing jockeys had a fall rate 12.5 times greater than their flat-racing counterparts. This shows that jumps racing is not only dangerous for horses but also for people.

Staggeringly, during the course of his or her career, one in three jockeys receives injuries that prevent them from continuing to race. In Victoria, this has led to a workers’ compensation bill of over $1 million, further evidence that it’s time to end the carnage of horses and jockeys alike.

This Easter weekend, racegoers turned out to the Oakbank Racing Carnival while protestors stood outside. While proponents of jumps racing would argue this was a relatively tame year – and it was, given that the green screen didn’t have to come out for a change – 2013 has proved the exception rather than the rule.

The reality is that the sport’s days are numbered, and support for this form of racing is evaporating. Betting revenue is poor and a number of races at the start of this season were cancelled because there weren’t enough starters.

Now it’s a case of “better late than never” more than 20 years on from the Senate Committee’s recommendations to start looking at banning jumps racing. South Australia and Victoria stand as the last outposts of this outdated relic.

Fortunately, it’s only a matter of time before the eulogies will not be for the horses, but for the industry itself.