• "Every year the voices of disquiet around the event, grow a little more resonant and hard to ignore." (AAP)
Every year, the spring racing carnival and Melbourne Cup put horse racing in the spotlight. Beyond the glamour, punting and carousal, animal welfare is a contentious issue. Things need to improve for the horses, writes Ian Rose, if the race isn’t to become an anachronism.
Ian Rose

6 Nov 2017 - 4:23 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2017 - 4:47 PM

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It was Theodore Parker, an early nineteenth century clergyman from Massachusetts, who first came up with the idea of that long arc. Martin Luther King polished it into the quote we know, which was then picked up by Barack Obama during his election campaign and is currently woven into an Oval Office rug.

Parker broke with the church in his early thirties, and dedicated his energies to the reforming movements of his time, principally the abolition of slavery.

There’s nothing recorded about Theodore Parker’s attitude towards animal rights. The moral universe’s arc hadn’t quite bent far enough back then. But it’s getting there, these days.

In these relatively enlightened times, cruelty towards the living creatures with whom we share the planet just won’t fly like it used to. We’re even catching on to the fact that eating them might require a rethink, what with all the cow-farts messing with the climate, the unsustainable demands made on grain and water supply, the heart disease and all.

Five times maximum that whip can be used, state the latest rules, except for the final hundred metres, when anything goes

Sure, there’s plenty of hypocrisy out there. For every staunch vegan, there’s a gaggle of guilty, wannabe-veggie meat-guzzlers, like me, massaging our consciences by buying free-range, not caring to know too much about, say, livestock export conditions or abusive sheep-shearers until some documentary rubs our faces in it.

When this stuff comes under the spotlight, though, people get cross about it, and what do you know, rules get tightened, change comes, little by little the moral arc is impelled to bend that bit further towards justice.

The Melbourne Cup puts horse racing right in the spotlight. And every year the voices of disquiet around the event grow a little more resonant and hard to ignore.

Two runners died soon after the race in 2014, another in 2015. In the last racing year, 137 horses have died while racing in Australia, about one every two or three days, according to the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

Seems a hard call to make, moral justice-wise. That animals should die or risk death so that we can drink, gamble and wear silly hats while watching them race one another (sometimes getting them to vault really high fences while they’re at it, just to keep things interesting) is a shabby look for a civilised species.

Apart from all the dying, there are other problems around the sport. Overbreeding, “wastage” (the knackery for those that don’t make the grade or have the right retirement plan), horses being raced too young, when they’re skeletally immature and prone to injury, doping.

Then there’s the whip.

Tourists used to go to bullfights on holiday in Spain. They’d watch the picadors jab and spear the bull into submission, a bull often pre-dazed and distressed, before the gaudily-dressed, swivel-hipped matador stepped in for the final act, and finished the creature off with his fancy dagger.

Not such a popular stop on the tourist trail these days, the bullring, numbers on the wane. The old arc of the moral universe at work, right there.

Cruelty towards the living creatures with whom we share the planet just won’t fly like it used to

Someday people might feel similarly about watching a jockey whip a racehorse around a track. Five times maximum that whip can be used, state the latest rules, except for the final hundred metres, when anything goes (for the sake of the race, of course).

But whipping’s whipping. Apart from the worrying frenzy of that final hundred, five times is five times too many. It might not be the same level as bullfighting, but, however hard you squint at it, it’s still animal abuse. For our entertainment.

There’s a good reason why Theodore Parker’s words got picked up by big guns like King and Obama. He was on to something, there is truth in them, as well as hope. That arc of the moral universe might have a long way to come, particularly for an animal bred for sport, but coming it is, and it’s bent on justice.

The Melbourne Cup should remind us, and Racing Australia, that improvements need to be made to animal welfare within racing.

If they’re not, a generation or two from now, in more enlightened times than ours to come, the race that once stopped a nation will more likely just be stopped.

Watch: SBS On Demand The Horse Mechanic (The Feed)


Trampling animal cruelty
These experimental chefs are pushing meat-free food forward - vegan eggs for all
From lab experiments to vegan deli foods, chefs and restaurateurs are pushing the possibilities of vegetarian food far beyond tossed leaves and lentil salad.
This one animal hospital is saving Jordan's forgotten pets
An unregulated animal breeding industry has contributed to the thousands of strays in Jordan, but one group of animal lovers is improving the living conditions for pets.