OPINION: Jumps racing is simply indefensible

OPINION: On MAY 12, 2012 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

TRYING to defend the indefensible leads to some logically inhospitable places. A good example is Andrew Lemon's essay in support of jumps racing (''In defence of the beautiful, humane sport of jumps racing'', in these pages last Saturday).

Lemon seeks ''the steeplechasing mind'' but facts are unromantic, so why use them? Instead he argues that ''the life well-lived cannot be entirely free from risk and death''. He says ''traditional field sports'', including fishing, shooting, fox hunting and steeplechasing, ''derive from country living and are anathema to the cautious city mentality''. Really?

Whose well-lived life are we talking about here? The risk-taking and dying is almost entirely on the side of the animals at the hands of humans.

But let's state things baldly: jumps racing kills horses at about 20 times the rate of normal racing. To see Sirrocean Storm fall, regain three of his legs while the fourth is smashed into a question mark against his belly, is to be ashamed of a modern culture forgetful of the humane progress we've made and too gutless to say, ''Hey, this is wrong, we don't do this kind of thing any more. Let's stop.''

Horses made to race and jump at the same time fall at an astounding rate. About one starter in 19 falls; in normal racing the figure is about one in 300. Jumps jockeys can expect to crash to ground in about one in every 13 rides. This is not a safe workplace for horse or rider.

Last week at the Warrnambool steeplechase carnival, Phaze Action crashed violently through a side barrier and, by luck alone, avoided death. His jockey said the horse had ''chickened out'' of the jumps. A racing commentator said the fall was the result of a jockey's tactical error and therefore not ''a normal jumps fall''. But it wouldn't have happened if not for the obstacles put in front of the horse.

The jumps industry has begun to use the devices of big business to evade blame or cloud causation. After crashing to its death the horse is said to have suffered a ''heart attack'', or it was ''brought down'' by another horse, or ''it fell on the flat'' or, if the horror is too great, a review is called to make jumps racing ''safer''. In fact, little is done but time passes and the public forgets.

Although they are inevitable, all horse deaths and falls are referred to as ''accidents''. When members of the public are harmed, or the ''accident'' ends in court with charges of cruelty being laid against the racing industry, it is called an ''incident''.

Frequently, horses are blamed for their own deaths; ''he made a mistake''. The responsibility-avoiding in jumps racing is breathtaking.

Lemon asks us to remember that although the American jumps race the Gold Cup is littered with falls and fatalities, none of its partisans ''for a moment considers there is any cruelty to animals''. What a surprise: the perpetrators of cruelty don't believe they're doing any harm. In fact, most of racing's ''horse lovers'' seem prepared to see any number of horses die in ''accidents'', just as long as the people can continue to do as they wish. But it leaves a sour taste, and the distance between racing and everyone else grows wider.

At 10 years of age and after 100 normal races, Nitonic wasn't given a well-earned retirement; he was put over the jumps and died in his second race. We see this often. Horses driven on and on until they die on the track or disappear.

Even champions aren't immune. Hibernian Prince won more than $1 million and Spanish Symbol close to that. Not enough. Both were put over the jumps and died on the track.

But for Lemon the real moral problem lies with those who document the reality of jumps racing. They are ''ghouls'' who ''wait like vultures near each jump'' for bad things to happen to horses. Which, apparently inexplicably, they often do.

For all this, anti-jumps advocates don't think pro-jumps people are bad. To us it simply appears they're trying to flog whale oil in a culture that now has a different relationship to whales than it once did. In other words, we've changed and racing hasn't. That's the basic problem.

While shedding 4200 government workers, the Baillieu government has seen fit to commit nearly $80 million to racing over four years, and millions to prop up jumps racing.

Given that jumps racing makes up less than 1 per cent of Victorian racing's TAB turnover and regularly attracts only one-third of normal race bets but the great bulk of racing's negative press, it seems hard to justify. Nevertheless, with the Minister for Racing's electorate of South-West Coast taking in Warrnambool, and his unqualified support for jumps racing on the record, it is not to him that we look for change. It is to the Premier.

Lawrence Pope is president of Victorian Advocates for Animals and author of the forthcoming book The Teeth of Beasts, which includes a critique of Victorian jumps racing.

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