The Melbourne Cup is upon us complete with millions of dollars in prize money at stake, and all the glitz and glamour of the day broadcast around the world. Dubbed locally as "the race that stops the nation" Kiwis are not immune to the buzz.
However, there's a suggestion that amongst all this excitement there is a more sinister element. Some animal welfare groups believe horse racing is nothing more than the exploitation of animals for entertainment and financial gain, claiming cruel practices throughout the industry. Concerns are across all types of racing, not just the flat racing events such as the Melbourne Cup.
Obviously the horse racing industry would not have achieved such a scale without the gambling associated with it. The large amounts of money involved in securing a win could be argued both as an incentive to take the best care possible care of the horses or to do whatever is needed to achieve the desired result on race day.
International animal rights organisation, PETA claim that studies show one in 22 horses fail to finish a race due to injuries sustained and that three thoroughbreds die every day in North America from race injuries.
Opponents to horse racing believe it is cruel for the following reasons
Horses begin their racing careers at age two and sometimes younger when their skeletal system is still growing and the combination of high speeds and hard tracks makes them highly susceptible to injuries. In non racing circles, intensive training does not start until a horse has finished development at around three to four years old. (Melbourne Cup horses are three years plus)
The intense pressure of training and racing causes horses to sustain frequent injuries such as pulling and breaking tendons, broken, chipped, shattered and fractured bones and burst arteries. Equine vets agree that the most common cause of fatalities on the track are caused by racing a horse with pre-existing injuries.
Anti racing advocates want stricter enforcement and penalties for the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs. There is also concern surrounding the use of legal drugs that mask the pain and symptoms of injuries, allowing a horse to risk further damage in a race rather than have recovery time
Horses are not natural jumpers and the combination of their large weight landing on ankles the size of a humans means a mistake in the timing or position before a jump can cause fatal and career ending injuries with unacceptable frequency.
Once a racehorse is no longer performing or if it has failed to achieve desired standards it is often sent for slaughter, involving a long crowded truck journey without access to proper food and water and resulting in injuries along the way. SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation) reports 1962 horses were slaughtered in NZ in 2011.
I spoke to a professional jockey with at least 15 years experience about her views on animal welfare concerns surrounding racehorses.
The jockey declined to be named, however is a well respected member of the racing community.
In her experience working with trainers and owners she says they are their pride and joy and are treated like pets.
"No-one wants them to break down" she says. "The horses enjoy the races, finishing them on their own even if a rider falls off" which she believes is testament to their naturally competitive nature.
"The horses are so well looked after and the owners love them so much."
The jockey agrees that injuries do happen but new developments in treatment are allowing for better recovery such as the P2G injection - a solution injected into tendons that is yielding impressive results in healing damage in this area.
In response to the slaughtering of unwanted racehorses she says that her employer keeps 99 per cent of ex-racing animals and that she is unaware of any horses being sent to Clover - the infamous horse slaughterhouse in Gore.
She says that ex-racehorses can "change career" and often go on to do eventing, hunting, jumps and as polo ponies if they are unsuitable or too old (7-9 yrs) for racing.
Contrary to some opinions she believes ex-race horses are not too flighty to be re-homed as pets.
This jockey admits that the industry is not perfect, but no more so than any other she says, with good and bad people and practices just like in any organisation.
Is horse racing the sport of kings or is it the blatant exploitation of horses for entertainment and financial gain? Something to ponder on Cup day.