The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most renowned Thoroughbred horse race that takes place on the first Tuesday of every November. It is a 3200-metre race open for everyone to attend and is conducted by the Victoria Racing Club on Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse as part of the Spring Racing Carnival.
Australia’s most iconic horse race is also one of the most contentious events in Australia’s public arena. Like most industries, the horse racing industry is multifaceted. The Melbourne Cup Carnival functions with support from other organisations in fashion, tourism and hospitality. Each sector collaborates to uphold Thoroughbred horse racing as a glamourous and classy ‘Sport of the Kings.’ In this publicly applauded arena, masses of people imitate a wealthy leisured elite while participating in gambling and horse ownership. Simultaneously, they pursue large financial profits.
Spectators ravishingly bask in the festivities on a day swamped by drinking and gambling. Journalists scramble to cover the trendy event’s ‘fashion and fun’, and attendees in floral dresses and extravagant headpieces frantically pose for their ‘Insta-worthy’ photos. All of this seemingly beautiful commotion ironically disguises an awful truth.
While it is locally known as ‘the race that stops the nation’, many argue this momentary freeze is not patriotic or proud. Rather, it unearths everything that is wrong with the country. A single race – applauded and celebrated by millions – brings issues of animal cruelty, gambling and human greed to the surface. Indeed, researchers have established the Melbourne Cup as a day that ‘segments a nation.’
A brief history of the Melbourne Cup
The Victorian Turf Club introduced the Melbourne Cup in 1861 to trump other successful Victorian Jockey Club races like the Two Thousand Guineas. The Melbourne Cup was introduced as a handicap race. The club believed this would heighten speculation around the event resulting in more entries and higher prize money.
In 1866, the Melbourne Cup race took place on a Thursday, and in 1867, it ran in October. It wasn’t until 1875 that the race took place on November 1st. In 1873, the Melbourne Cup was established as a public holiday under the Bank Holidays Act and the Civil Service Act.
The annual Melbourne Cup horse race continues to hold an iconic status among many Australians. However, it increasingly faces intense criticism regarding animal welfare and the ethics of gambling. The Cup has a cultural status as a national symbol. But as the nation changes, so too must the event.
The Melbourne Cup promotes animal cruelty
The Melbourne Cup has vast economic and social benefits. A study documenting the impact of the Melbourne Cup Carnival showed the 2018 event to deliver a record $447.6 million boost to the Victorian economy. This figure was a 20 per cent increase since 2014. However, these benefits shadow the high costs to animal welfare.
The event has seen the sudden deaths of high-profile horses as spectators cheer on the sidelines. Seven horses have died at the Melbourne Cup since 2013, and on Australian racetracks more broadly, over one hundred horses have died in the past couple of years. These deaths were a traumatic, vile mess of tangled limbs and broken bones.
In addition, the Melbourne Cup is associated with extensive wastage and chronic pain from pulmonary haemorrhages, musculoskeletal injuries and gastric ulcers. Reports say the ‘wastage’ rate for horses in training or used for racing sits at about 40%. In other words, due to strenuous training regimes and health problems, many horses will never race. These horses are often sent to abattoirs for slaughter when trainers deem them incapable of earning money. Injuries and fatalities from jumps are also increasingly prevalent. Moreover, there is mounting public distaste for the use of harrowing equipment such as whips and tongue-ties.
It’s common for horses to bleed from their lungs. This bleeding results from a condition called exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhaging caused by strenuous exercise. Researchers at the University of Melbourne found that over half of the racehorses they studied had blood in their windpipes. This condition is a sign that the animals are being overworked beyond what their bodies can withstand.
The horse death ring theory
Most horse deaths on the Melbourne Cup track have been international horses. This year, the ‘incident-free’ race fuels the theory about the spate of horse deaths since the international composition that usually dominates the event was lacking due to COVID. Only two international horses were present at the Cup in 2021 – US horse Spanish Mission and defending Irish champion Twilight Payment. Aside from these two horses, the race was dominated by locally trained horses.
The seven horse deaths at the Melbourne Cup have all been international horses. This devastating outcome results from the unfamiliar conditions and long overseas journeys for foreign horses, who are consequently injured more often than locally trained horses.
2020: Ireland’s Anthony Van Dyck suffered a fractured fetlock and was subsequently euthanised. The horse’s death enraged anti-racing advocates and animal welfare groups.
2019: Ireland’s Rostropovich pulled up lame and limped to the finish line after suffering a stress fracture.
2018: the young Irish stallion Cliffs of Moher was euthanised after suffering a fractured shoulder during the Melbourne Cup race.
2017: five-year-old British horse Regal Monarch died after a sudden and dramatic mid-race fall.
2015: fan favourite British horse Red Cadeaux was euthanised after breaking his left foreleg. According to experts at the University of Melbourne, the lost blood flow to the leg could not be fixed – it was an ‘irreversible complication.’
2013: French horse Verema snapped its cannon bone, a large bone in its lower leg, and was subsequently euthanised.
Horses sent to abattoirs
Hundreds of racehorses are sent to Australian abattoirs and slaughtered. The ABC’s 7.30 program found that around 300 racehorses went through the Meramist Abattoir in Queensland in just 22 days. The horses had won around $5 million in prize money before they met their deaths at the abattoir.
For the past two years, Elio Celotto and the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses have watched the torturous practices in Meramist Abattoir. Using secret cameras, they recorded daily activities on the ground. Meramist massacres mixed livestock, including an estimated 500 horses a month.
Mr Celotto told 7.30:
‘It’s an abattoir that kills horses for human consumption … [the meat] goes to various countries in Europe, it goes to Japan, and Russia’s a big importer as well.’
Surprisingly, slaughtering racehorses is not illegal in Australia. However, it does go against many racing policies that require all retired racehorses to be rehomed.
Horses slaughtered for meat
A PETA exposé found that Australian horses who are no longer deemed ‘winners’ are often sold to South Korea, their final resting place on dinner tables – ‘Praise the winner, eat the loser.’ The exposé discovered horse flesh sold at restaurants and grocery stores, and horse fat recycled into beauty products.
In their final moments before death at the abattoirs, horses are crammed into kill boxes designed for cattle. An official with the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency told The Korea Observer:
‘We knock out horses with the same hammer that we use for cows. Things may get a little messy if they do not pass out at the first blow.’
Researchers looked into Korea’s Racing Authority records and found that over 3000 horses from Australia have been slaughtered for meat since the 1970s.
Horses over-medicated on drugs
It’s common for racehorses to be over-medicated on drugs to keep them racing despite any underlying injuries or sickness. Trainers often use a cocktail of anti-inflammatory drugs, sedatives, hormones, painkillers and muscle relaxants to conceal injuries while enhancing performance. Sadly, over-medicating horses with these drugs usually renders them vulnerable to breaking down or collapsing mid-race.
Whipping during the race
Just as humans can feel a fly land on their skin, horses are also sensitive to the slightest of external stimuli. In Australia, it’s legal to whip racehorses up to 18 times per race. Beating an animal is considered legal only in racing. Despite the prevalence of whipping, a study revealed that out of 1,500 Australian adults, three-quarters disagreed with the use of whipping during a race. Supporters of the Melbourne Cup continue to promote the event as one of national identity. However, given the public’s strong disdain towards the brutal treatment of racehorses, it’s arguable if the event really is an enduring cultural icon.
The Melbourne Cup promotes gambling
In addition to the disastrous effects on animals, the Melbourne Cup also supports the worst of human behaviours. Excessive gambling is a pervasive financial and mental health issue among Australians. Data from the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission indicates that up to 170,000 Australian adults experience gambling addiction. Australians are among the heaviest gamblers in the world, losing A$24.9 billion a year to gambling.
The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s biggest one-day gambling event. Attendees wagered a record $221.6 million in the 2020 race.
McManus, Albrecht, and Raewyn (2012, p. 45) argue:
‘The rise of the thoroughbred [racing] is linked with colonial settlement patterns, visions of affluence, the need of breeders to expand the markets for their produce and the propensity for gambling.’
A conspicuous display of human greed and superiority
As drunken punters adorned in extravagant clothing revel in the prospect of financial gain, those on the outside may notice an image of conspicuous greed and superiority emerging.
‘We reveal ourselves through the Melbourne Cup, a mutated display of animal cruelty, drunkenness, gambling, and aggressively casual unkindness’ – Joseph Earp
An unusual comparison: The Melbourne Cup and Squid Game
If you’ve watched Squid Game – one of the most popular shows on Netflix – you will resonate with the comparison I’m about the make.
In Squid Game, a group of numbered contestants fight for their lives in a series of games. Towards the end of the series, we see a small cluster of opulent humans wearing diamond headpieces that disguise their faces (the ‘VIPs’). These humans control the game. They drunkenly spectate contestants and gamble on which number is going to win, all while relishing in the deaths of failed participants.
I can’t help but notice a distinct link between these fictional scenes and the scenes at the Melbourne Cup. Of course, not all spectators are incredibly wealthy, and I doubt anyone enjoys watching the torture of animals. But the underlying tones of human superiority and monetary fixation are still there. Many Melbourne Cup attendees wear fancy headpieces (so do the VIPs). Additionally, they bet on which over-worked animal will be victorious (so do the VIPs). In doing so, they view horses not as sentient animals but as rich canvases of financial prospect (similar to how the VIPs view game participants as gamble-worthy numbers).
Increasing public disapproval
This year, many Australians noticed the problems with the Melbourne Cup and chose not to attend. The ABC asked people what they most disliked about the race:
‘I have always thought that it’s more about gambling than horses that should be in a field eating grass.’ – Felicity
‘Two horses died in the race last year … all for our entertainment. There are other ways to be entertained.’ – Laura
‘I love the fashions, the history, and the idea of holding a fun event, but find it a bit off-putting that animals might suffer while we all compare our fascinators. Maybe we should replace the horses with a running race for humans or something as equally trivial, like an egg and spoon race!’ – Bec
The arguments of horseracing industry supporters
Victorian Racing Minister Martin Pakula spoke on Radio National’s Drive and vehemently disagreed with those protesting against the Melbourne Cup. Pakulu defended the economic benefit of the famous event while alluding to its 161 years of tradition as an iconic cultural symbol of Australia. He said:
‘There are people who pretend to be concerned about horse welfare, but frankly, I think a lot of those people would be disappointed there wasn’t an incident today, because their primary concern is to campaign against the Melbourne Cup … ‘And the idea that some people like to propagate that racing people — trainers, owners, strappers, jockeys, handlers — do not care about horse welfare is offensive to many people in the industry and is offensive because it is fundamentally untrue.’
The future of the Melbourne Cup
Social values are morphing, and many people are increasingly conscious of the problems masked behind the extravagant festivities. However, at the same time, those who support horse racing and continue to participate fiercely defend its status as a cultural icon. So, where does that leave the renowned event? Well, it is certainly no longer an event that binds the nation. Rather, the Melbourne Cup symbolises segregation. The event nurtures profit-seeking mongers’ conspicuous greed and wealth while elucidating the harsh realities of animal welfare, gambling, and humans’ self-designated superiority.
As stated by Calla Wahlquist, when the nation changes, so too must the event. But the organisers of the Melbourne Cup are torn between upholding sporting traditions and maintaining their hold on public consciousnesses. The future of the Cup is uncertain. However, we can be confident that it no longer represents a proud sporting symbol of Australian identity.