Friday, November 12, 2010
The Melbourne Cup
"...on this most Australian of days." The Governor General presents the tophy to winning owners at the 2010 Melbourne Cup
I went to the Melbourne Cup last week. It was for work. I had to apply for us all to get media accreditation from the Victoria Racing Club, so it was kind of a big deal (or a pain in the arse, depending on who I'm talking to!).
As she was presenting the trophy to the winner, our Governor General Quentin Bryce referred to the Melbourne Cup as "this most Australian of days." I think it's really interesting how a horse race has become so aligned with notions of Australian-ness, to the point where our own GG buys into the mythology.
But the thing about the Melbourne Cup is that it has been this way almost since it's inception. If we've been listening to the hype (or even if you've been totaly immersed in the subject because you're researching it for work purposes!) you can't fail to have missed the fact that the Cup has been going for 150 years, as of the most recent running.
In 1880, when the population of Melbourne was less than 300,000 people, some 100,000 showed up at Flemington to watch the Melbourne Cup. In 1895, when Mark Twain was visiting Australia, he witnessed the lead-up to the Cup in Melbourne (though he was on a boat travelling to NZ by the time the race was actually run), and he was led to declare that Melbourne was "the mitred Metropolitan of the horse-racing cult", that Flemington Racecourse was "the Mecca of Australasia", and the Melbourne Cup itself was "the Australasian national day." [For references, see Following the Equator, Mark Twain 1896]. So Quentin Bryce was merely one more in a long line of people who view Cup Day as a sort of Australian Holy Day.
The early days of horseracing in Australia were about improving the breed of horses in the new colony, and a race was merely a way of proving superior bloodstock, rather than an end in itself. But nowadays it's a full-blown industry, with all the attendant problems which that brings. People are in it for the money, horses are seen as nothing more than investments, and those that don't succeed are quickly cast aside.
Every year some 17,000 thoroughbred foals are born in Australia - this figure does not take into account the number of horses imported into Australia to race - and every year some 18,000 ex-racehorses are sent to the knackery. Think about that figure for just a minute - 18,000 unwanted, cast aside racehorses slaughtered, every single year.
I could also go into the treatment of racehorses, the high incidence of pulmonary bleeding (that is fancy talk for bleeding from their lungs), which has been shown to affect a staggering 95% of horses following a race [for reference check, see Birks EK, Shuler KM, Soma LR, Martin BB, Marconato L, Del Piero F., Teleis DC, Schar D., Hessinger AE, Uboh CE, “EIPH: postrace endoscopic evaluation of Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds,” Department of Clnical Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Equine Veterinary Journal Supplement, September 2002, but I got it from http://www.horseracingkills.org/6_3.htm], and other, equally awful aspects of horse-racing.
My main objection to this sport is that we CELEBRATE it. You know, greyhound racing has a pretty seedy reputation, and most people know about the issues of greyhounds needing to be rehomed, but nobody is jumping up and down to cheer on the greyhounds the way we do the Melbourne Cup every year. I just think more people should know the truth about the industry, so they can make an informed choice about whether they want to support the 'race that stops the nation', rather than just getting caught up in the annual hype about the race, and the myth that it's a glamorous sport.
And as for it somehow being our national day, well, I call bullshit on that too. Maybe once, in the 'good old days', it was a proud and noble tradition, but with the advent of professional trainers, marketing, and sponsorship it has moved into the realm of an industry, one based on the exploitation of animals. I have spent the last year and a half researching it, and this is the sad conclusion I've come to.
I'd better look out though, people are probably going to start calling me un-Australian now.