By Joanne Verikios
More than half a century ago, an eight year old girl had a date with destiny. Counting the seconds until school was over, she knew it would be one of the most important days of her life. If all went well, if she passed some kind of assessment, she knew her dreams would begin to come true. The girl was the sort who preferred jeans to dresses and would get into trouble for looking out the window in class, yearning to be outside. She loved animals and, more than anything else in the world, she loved horses.
This day was important - important enough for her father to take time off - because the man she was going to meet HAD HORSES! Not just any horses either. The man, Mr Les Watterson, was a distinguished ex-jockey and now a respected racehorse trainer. Every day at 4am, Mr Watterson would ride his steady skewbald lead pony to Clifford Park Racecourse in Toowoomba. On either side of the pony was a curvetting, prancing Thoroughbred, bursting out of its skin with energy and joie de vivre. The little girl would sometimes hear their hoofbeats as they passed her home en route to their track work and an electric thrill would run through her body at the sound. There was a chance that the little girl would be allowed the unimaginably joyful privilege of riding the lead pony after school.
That little girl was me. Much to my delight and eternal gratitude, Mr Watterson knew a real horsewoman when he saw one. "Joanne has a way with horses", he would tell my parents.
I spent as much time as possible at his stables over several years and learned the rhythm of horsemanship and of racing. I saw how the racehorses were housed, fed, groomed, exercised, monitored, doctored, spelled and turned out for their daily bout of freedom and green pick. They were treated like the kings and queens they were. Each was nurtured as an individual and there was an obvious bond between trainer and trainee. That was my introduction to the world of horseracing.
My parents were not punters but the Melbourne Cup, with its long and fascinating history, was special and they had a small bet each way every year. Dad would also place a bet for us kids. My younger brother chose his horse using an original system involving arcane indicators. For four years in a row he picked the winner: Light Fingers (1965), Galilee (1966), Red Handed (1967) and Rain Lover (1968). Rain Lover won The Cup again in 1969, but "the system" didn't anticipate lighting striking twice in the same place, thus ending the winning streak!
When we were kids and into my early adulthood, I don't recall anyone questioning the Melbourne Cup. The race that stops a nation was a revered and much anticipated annual event. Now, however, there is an increasing level of opposition to all horse racing by kind-hearted people who respond to the well-crafted media campaigns of anti-racing, anti-gambling activists.
Because of my background with horses, I am sometimes asked for my opinion of horse racing. My answer has always been two-pronged: I have no problem with horse racing provided it is done right; and I do not agree with racing two-year-olds because they are too immature. The purpose of this article is to give a longer answer.
Let's look at the key objections. Most of them seem to be driven by a viewpoint that no-one - and by extension no thing - should ever die, feel pain or suffer a negative emotion. This is despite evidence that exposure to mild stress builds resilience, error learning is essential to personal development and one's own discomfort is helpful in creating empathy for others. Not to mention the fact that life is inevitably fatal.
A major objection is that horses are injured and some subsequently need to be euthanised as a result of racing. This is quite true and it's always very sad when it happens. To provide some perspective, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that many more domesticated and wild horses are injured - some seriously - while simply being horses. Just because paddock injuries aren't televised doesn't mean they don't happen. I am no stranger to the awful emotions of losing a beloved horse to injury or illness. See for example this story: "When Your Mare Dies".
The kind of accident that I find more distressing than those that occur while racehorses are doing what they are bred to do (and love to do), which is run, is what happened AFTER the 2015 Melbourne Cup. As the field returned to the mounting yard Araldo, who had placed 7th, was spooked by a flag waved by someone in the crowd who clearly know nothing about horses. Frightened, he ran backwards into the fence, broke a leg and was put down that night.
As I recorded in the introduction to my book "Winning Horsemanship":
"Two things inspired me to put my thoughts down on paper. One was watching a lot of people doing a pretty good job with their horses but missing a couple of key skills that would make all the difference to their performance. The other was the tragic and very public death of a beautiful horse through a set of circumstances that could have been avoided had the humans involved had more horse sense. This book is for horses as much as for horse lovers. Horses don’t read books, so they rely on us for their health, happiness and sanity. They rely on us not to misuse the power we have over their lives. Building a better relationship with your horse will enhance your likelihood of success in every aspect of your life, and that is exciting."
Another prevalent objection is that gambling is evil and should be prevented. A noble aim, but I fear an unrealistic one. Gambling is probably as old as homo sapiens and prohibition of gambling in Australia would be about as successful as Prohibition of liquor was in America, with the same undesirable consequences. Gambling is an entertaining diversion for some and an irresistible compulsion for others. It is the compulsion that needs society's attention, not the innumerable things on which it is possible to lay a bet. If you would like to understand it better, read "The Gambler" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The third objection that is often raised is that jockeys use whips. They do. And for two reasons. The first is to help correct the course of a horse, so he or she runs straight and doesn't interfere with others in the race. The whip has a similar effect to another horse nipping at its rear end to urge it in a certain direction.
The second is to ask for extra effort.
I most admire the jockeys who are able to ride "hands and heels" and use the whip sparingly or when required for safety, but I would like to see the whip relegated to a directional aid only. It is worth noting, however, that a racehorse benefits from two things. One is adrenaline, which any athlete will tell you dampens or even eliminates pain in the heat of the moment. The other is that Thoroughbreds are horses, and horses are animals who play rough and fight rougher. Yes they can feel a fly land on their back. Equally, as prey animals they are capable of extreme violence and tremendous stoicism. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a kick or a bite, or even some mutual grooming from a horse, can attest to how their standards differ from ours.
A fourth objection is that some horses bleed from the nose after a race. It’s actually not common to see a horse with a bad nosebleed and the stewards are very vigilant in calling it out if they do see it. In the interests of objectivity, it's worth noting that horses naturally love to gallop and will do it by themselves when they have room to do so. Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage (EIPH) has also been reported in human athletes, camels and greyhounds. In fact, I remember tasting blood when I used to run middle distance at school - that’s probably why! Studies show that congenital factors play a part in the severity of EIPH and Wikipedia lists a range of other possible contributing factors.
Some people object to racing's "wastage" factor, where unsuccessful or injured horses may be sent to slaughter. This is indeed a reality. I used to be appalled at the idea of knackeries and horse abattoirs, but I now accept that they have a welfare role to play, especially in dealing with animals who might otherwise die slow and painful deaths from neglect and malnutrition. Looking on the bright side, many racehorses and trotters (Standardbreds) are re-homed and there is an increasing industry growing up around this. The OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred) is becoming a household name. Back in my day they went by the else glamorous term of ex-racehorses, and countless horses who were too slow for the track had long careers as pony club mounts, hacks, dressage horses, showjumpers and eventers.
The public is being groomed to associate racing with cruelty. It's not a perfect world, but racehorses are elite athletes and are overwhelmingly treated as such. In my experience, they are generally happy, pampered horses. No force on earth can make a super racehorse like Winx do what she does, in the way she does it, time after time. That requires something totally different; something that this quote expresses very well:
"Magic shows up when the horse knows his job, when we let go and allow them to be the best they can be. When we set the intention, give them just enough information so they know what to do next and then let go and let them show us how fantastic they are. This is the magic spectators see, the magic which makes them want to be part of what we do." https://www.facebook.com/theponyhabit
From a very early age I have been able to tune in to what horses and ponies were thinking and what they were likely to do next.