Current Issue #488

For the love of a grandfather

For the love of a grandfather

My grandfather died on the racetrack. He was 24.

My grandfather died on the racetrack. He was 24.

Having survived the war he was keen to get back into the sport he loved. He was also keen to start a family. My pregnant grandmother watched the race from the stand. Racing officials refused her access to the room my grandfather was being treated in after his fall. She never got the chance to say goodbye.

Weeks later it was uncovered that the horse bled the morning of the race, but the trainer never told anyone. And that was it. The course was set. My fatherless mother had her destiny changed by an industry that benefits few for the sake of many.

I cannot imagine what it was like to be a single mother in the late 1940s. I cannot image what it is like to live without a father’s guidance. But I have lived the consequence and I would not wish it upon anyone.

To say that my mum is haunted by her absent father is an understatement. Searching for ways to be closer to him, over the years my nan, mum and I started going to the races. It was a way of feeling a part of the sport he loved; a mark of respect. It seemed cathartic for wife and daughter.

We had many a great day dressing up, having lunch, a drink and a flutter. Initially, I was a little surprised at the lack of acknowledgement of what happened to my grandfather, even when it was bought to the attention of officials on memorial days. It followed a pattern. There was no acknowledgement or support for my nan at the time of her husband’s death. What I witnessed years later felt like a deliberate avoidance of the issue by staff who could not conceive of the gravity of the circumstance. At best it was an unwanted distraction from drinking, betting and being social.

Now, I am a keen gambler. I was a croupier for a few years in my youth. I was ‘on the floor’ (which in this context means standing behind a blackjack table) the night Crown Casino opened in Melbourne. I liked playing to the crowd, being an entertainer.

I get the importance of atmosphere, and of romance, in gambling. What Bond does for casinos; pretty women and celebrities do for racing. And there is no bigger promotional opportunity than Melbourne Cup. School kids stop learning to watch it, and so the indoctrination begins.

What started as turning the TV over every time there was a news report of a race fall, to not going to race events that included jumps races, hearing corruption scandals, and observing the general lack of transparency on important safety issues culminated yesterday in my family deciding to end our association with racing.

Yesterday, the favourite in the Melbourne Cup died after the race. It was reported immediately, because it was the favourite. The market had spoken: ‘what happened to all our money’, it said.

The fact alone that it was reported was amazing. In last year’s Melbourne Cup a horse broke down during the race and was put down on the track. Does anyone remember Verema? The French mare was not the favourite, the coverage was minimal, almost an afterthought. After all, we had a female trainer who procured a horse a year earlier in order to secure the one racing title she didn’t have. She wears nice clothes, has public fights with millionaires and you might have seen her son on TV. Great copy.

This time 12 months ago we were too busy promoting our thoroughly modern racing industry to be bothered with such a minor inconvenience as a dead horse.

Never mind the fact that in the same race there were two young horses so wrecked by distance and class their barely formed bones couldn’t hold up, with both almost failing to finish the race. As a result, these young horses will never reach their full potential. I would be surprised if either runs at the top grade again. Perhaps the owners thought the experience was worth it? I am sure that was part of the pitch: you can tell your grandkids you once had a runner in the Melbourne Cup. How exciting. Sacrificing the horse itself, knowingly or otherwise, just a minor inconvenience.

Yet should any of these supremely talented, intelligent, wondrous beings have collapsed during the Melbourne Cup, especially Admire Rakti having led most of the way, it would have been carnage.

It was the catastrophic injuries to horses that caused the deaths of two young jockeys just last month. Not incorrect manoeuvring, not the state of the track, but the physical collapse of a horse. And it is this exact outcome, that leading trainer Lee Freedman is trying to avoid by speaking out on the state of the industry and the need for reform. You know Lee, he’s the Australian Racing Hall of Fame and Melbourne Cup winning trainer. Perhaps more famous now for being the brother of the guy on the racing panel on TV, or for being the father of Emma Freedman. He can see the future of Australian racing and he is worried, as he should be.

Deaths and critical injuries (to jockeys and equines) caused excessively large fields (for the punters), star trainers running young horses they know won’t run again – burnt out after one ‘big’ race – to satisfy owners looking for the quick return, vested interests sanctioning the participation of horses. Wastage and whips. Today it feels incomprehensible – all of it. Just as I am sure it does for those closest to the horses that died yesterday.

Does anyone really think that people will stop going to the Oakbank if there are no jumps? That people will stop turning up to the Spring Carnival if whips aren’t used? People will bet on flies crawling up the wall; you think they won’t bet if there is a small field? Seriously? I’ve been to two Melbourne Cups. Both were great fun; windy, crowded, chaotic fun. I doubt any of us could remember who won. It could have been a virtual race for all we cared. And we were the ones that were sober enough (just) to remember that horses were actually racing.

I know what you are thinking: why change a winning formula; the nation needs an excuse to let our hair down; stop trying to spoil my fun. But even so, you wouldn’t argue against a safer, more humane approach to racing. So why are officials so quick to put their heads in the sand?

For our family, racing needs reform because the way we treat the creatures under our care reflects directly on each of us. This is the lucky country. Not wilfully ignorant, not callous. Lucky.

If you don’t care about horses, then care about the jockeys. You don’t care about the jockeys, then care about their kids, and their kids’ kids. There is no point continuing down the current, inhumane, unaccountable path.

So today, when the industry is in full damage control, we three generations of race goers have decided never to watch, punt or entertain the racing industry again. We will no longer participate. We are done.

From this point on we will stop being tacitly complicit in an industry stuck in the 1940s. Instead of putting $2 each way on a horse (more in my case), we’ll be donating it. Anyone familiar in with the gaming industry will tell you how important the small value high volume wagers are. For these same reasons homeless shelters, medical researchers, animal advocates will all readily take your $5 (okay, I rounded up) – and put it to good use.

There is little point in using living, breathing, feeling animals as an excuse to get tipsy at work. Go home early and play with your kids or walk your dog. Get together with your friends, laugh and have fun. Real fun, not confected crazy hat fun.

To those snide individuals (and there are so many of them) who can’t bring themselves to engage in the argument on hand, deflecting with ridiculous questions like: ‘Do you own a pet?’ or ‘Why don’t you care as much about asylum seekers?’ or ‘Why isn’t there more outrage about 40 people who died of smoking related illness in Australia today?’ Yes, we get it. Every action, and more importantly every inaction, has a moral consequence. People should be more mindful of the impact they can have on a range of issues. All of them important. All of them worthy.

But today, on this day, we are concerning ourselves with voiceless animals and an industry that refuses to evolve – putting lives at unnecessary risk.

The debate is about the need to reform the horse racing industry – to provide greater protection for jockey and thoroughbred alike. If you have a contribution, make it, otherwise save your gas and spare a thought for what it would be like if your partner or father was put to work on dangerous equipment and never came home. No explanation. No compensation. No rationale.

And for those in the ‘don’t spoil my fun’ camp, well, just make sure you hug your dad the next time you see him – and thank your lucky stars that he isn’t a jockey.

Loire Hunter is the granddaughter of Mr Robert Roberts, jockey, veteran and by all accounts a very decent bloke.

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