It is the dizziest time of the year, that last glass of bubbling hope can see you go from tippled to toppled. Rituals that have been 158 cups in the making demand jockey and galloper get back on the crystal even if it is only to topple back down.
An already bruised sport is falling from public interest and it can no longer presume its place in Australian culture will be or even is revered.
The most deleterious day in sport is also the most disingenuous. Because the Melbourne Cup is the day of the big lie. It is a tradition or curse more than a century old.
The sport is a glorious one and the Cup, run over 3200 metres, leaves the strongest and fittest horses sucking for oxygen. The final clawing over the last few metres must have the horses feeling they have used their God-given share and more. Melbourne Cups are not won without limitless courage. For lesser or underprepared competitors, it can be a death march.
Everything else about Melbourne Cup Day is a fantasy. Clobber worth more than a family car. Enough grog to turn the track to a heavy 10. Taylor Swift is coming but the singer is gone before she comes. The Cup is worth $8 million and about that much again short of being the richest race in the country.
The controversy about the treatment of racehorses has made graphic news this spring. The scenes from a Queensland abattoir have revolted the nation. Retired, broken down or just slow horses are slaughtered heartily. No dignity or respect afforded the horses here. No dignity or respect, either, deserved for the humans who lunge at the panicked horses with poles or batter them with pieces of wood. Cheering them to their death.
Racing officials suddenly find a couple of lengths; prepared to take the neatest of gaps and treat the weight of the news of the cruel death of horses with grim looks and eyebrows that work overtime.
Last week Racing Victoria, which in its defence had been working on a proposal to improve both the image of the sport and the health of the horse, said it planned to spend $25m on a scheme to improve the welfare of Victorian thoroughbreds.
It is a plan of many parts: a statewide rehoming program; post-racing career options: statewide foster program; an advanced tracking system; an equine welfare taskforce; humane euthanasia, and responsible breeding. No mention of the bleeding obvious.
RV chairman Brian Kruger likes his board’s plan.
“Victoria’s vision is to be a leader in equine welfare practices. Whilst the industry has achieved many great outcomes over recent years and has a clear pathway for the future, it is clear we need to step up and do more,” Kruger said.
But this was the critical point. “The horses are the stars of our sport and no one will argue that they must be treated as such.”
Here is the shameful hypocrisy, worthy of an Australian politician. The horses are the stars of the show? Fantasy. The world stood about more than a decade ago when Australian jockeys went on strike so they could be allowed to whip their horses more often after strict whip rules were introduced. It was argued jockeys needed the whips for control. Good safety measure. Just don’t smack the horses for an extra quid or two. Then we found out jockeys could not count when the rules limited the number of strikes in the final 100 metres. Next the bastards would ask them to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Australian racing sophisticated? No wonder abattoirs cared little for the horses if the nation’s officials allowed them to be crashed time and again by a whip.
No, our racing has no heart. Officials allow horses to be whipped five times before the final 100 metres and at the jockey’s discretion after that. Let’s say that’s the possibility of 15 strikes a horse after the 100m post.
So what effect does that have on the Melbourne Cup field? Well, let’s agree on a kind figure that, combined, the horses in the Cup may be hit 24x15 times. That’s 360 whacks between the 100m and the finish. Add the five before the 100 and we have another 120 lashes. Add that to the 360 in the final 100 and there is the potential for the field in today’s Cup to be hit some 480 times.
Accept some horses will not be in contention so will be spared the thrashing whip, but accept too that since prizemoney goes down to 12th spot there will still be a whole lot of whipping going on. That’s how Australian racing treats its “stars”. How absurd.
It is simply impossible for the racing industry to convince the public that it cares dearly for its “stars” if they are allowed to be beaten by the whip with the ferocity of jockeys chasing big money.
And the argument that the whip doesn’t hurt is rendered useless, not just by weight of scientific evidence, but by the urgency of jockeys to strike the horse. Hitting horses is not encouragement. It is a threatening demand.
Australian racing will never be as professional and sophisticated as it pretended to be this spring. Not until it operates as one body. Shouldn’t be hard to find one.