On horseracing

I was asked yesterday about my PhD and whether or not I’d be visiting racetracks and racing clubs.  Because the answer is yes, the collections of race clubs are included within the scope of my PhD, I felt compelled to consider my personal views on racing, and where exactly they sit (if at all) within my research.

My opinion on the contemporary sport of racing was shaped while doing research on the Melbourne Cup for an exhibit at the National Museum of Australia. Prior to that, I knew nothing about horse racing. After reading so many statistics about bleeding lungs, injuries to both horses and jockeys, and the huge number of unsuccessful but otherwise healthy racehorses sent to the knackery each year, I arrived at the conclusion that horse racing is an industry (rather than a sport), and one which puts profit ahead of the welfare of the animals involved. I am someone who identifies strongly as caring about animals, and being against animal cruelty. This stance shapes the products I buy, the foods I eat, and the perspective I have on the world.

But where do I draw the line between my personal feelings on horse racing, and the research work I’m engaged in? Last year I attended a student conference where one of the participants talked about beginning her research with an attitude of wanting to ‘right wrongs’, but during the process she came to the awareness that actually, it was more important to approach all parties with an equal sense of respect. This statement resonated strongly with me, and I think aptly describes the approach I want to take moving forward into the fieldwork phase, and working with racing establishments.

Because, while it was querying the celebratory representation of horse racing in the National Museum that brought me to starting a PhD, it’s no longer what the project is about. I acknowledge that personal biases are so deeply embedded in our work, to the extent that they shape the research questions we ask, and, if we are unaware of them, often the answers we get too. Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

I had . . . during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a
published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was
opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at
once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more
apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.

If in the above quote you replace the word ‘results’ with ‘opinion’, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. And that is why I include the following link to a blog post titled ‘For the love of racing’, written last week by supporter and fan of horse-racing Mandy Haskell. She cites events that happened in the US, but her undeniably heartfelt plea for the sport must echo the thoughts and feelings of racing fans the world over. And because I am not a fan, but because I want to be respectful, I think her piece is worth reading.

EDIT (July 2015): Since writing this post almost 18 months ago, a lot of things have changed, the most significant one being the publication of a peer-reviewed study on the number of racehorses that end up at the knackery. I recommend reading it – it’s by Thompson, Hayek, Jones, Evans and McGreevy, and was published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in August 2014. This paper, as well as some research I did for myself, reveals that the figures that have been cited in the popular media are wrong. However, the figures cited by pro-racing groups are also flawed. This reveals the importance of doing your own research, rather than believing everything you read. In light of the original post, above, my feelings about racing are ambivalent. I think progress is being made within the industry in terms of accountability, and that is fantastic. I think the defensiveness exhibited by both pro- and anti-racing groups is ultimately a distraction from real outcomes. And I acknowledge that the personal investments of emotion, from both sides, makes the issue so much more complex than perhaps I first realised.

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3 thoughts on “On horseracing

  1. Hi Isa,

    Thanks for your post. I wonder if you have noticed some recent TV ads about horseracing: the Australian Turf club promotions for the Championships (aka the Autumn Carnival); and an ad for a syndicate offering 5% share in a horse whom I think is called Broban.

    The recent ads for the 2014 Championships (the BMW Sydney Carnival) feature a horse presented as Makybe Diva. Like this one: https://www.australianturfclub.com.au/. I had a feeling the horse was not Makybe Diva – she is not deep enough through the girth, and her back seems shorter — and lo and behold, I was right. And, she is not a she: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/superracing/silly-billy-slater-almost-bucked-off-cox-plate-champion-maldivian/story-fnibcaa0-1226821450575.

    The ATC’s slogan ‘It’s going to get racy’ is obviously trying to attract more men (and young women?) to the races. It’s disappointing that they’re treating the horse as a brand, rather than as an individual athlete, but I guess they must think no-one will notice; all horses look the same, right? (Imagine what would happen if the tennis people did an ad featuring Roger Federer, but used a photograph of someone who was not Roger Federer?) Still, the strong emphasis on not-Makybe Diva is a change from the Melbourne Cup Carnival marketing campaign a few years back that featured a silhouette of a Cup, some fluttery thing (rose petals? confetti?) but not a single horse.

    The syndication ad (which unfortunately I cannot find on YouTube) is shot from the POV of the new syndicate member/TV viewer/you. A door opens, and you are drawn into the bustling inner sanctum of the racing stable, where handsome men in suits and a solitary (blonde) woman acknowledge you in a respectful yet friendly manner. You move past these people towards the object of desire; your new possession: the great horse. The final shot shows the horse, and only the horse. He stares at you with gentle, innocent eyes. It’s an interesting ad because it shows the horse at peace (no straining, sweating, or flared nostrils here!); as an individual of supreme importance, around which mere humans revolve; but also as a warm brown cog in a machine. Lots of layers of meaning: check it out if you can find it.

    All the best with your research!

    🙂 Steph

    • Hi Steph,

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly have noticed ‘The Diva’ adverts up around Sydney and Canberra (it would be very hard not to!), and in fact have requested a copy from JCDecaux when the campaign is over for my research. I, like you stopped to scrutinise it, and, also like you, realised on close inspection that it was not ‘THE Diva’. This racing commentator was quite dismissive of the overall advertising campaign: http://www.smh.com.au/sport/horseracing/australian-turf-clubs-ad-campaign-needs-stars-not-just-froth-and-bubble-20140309-34fki.html

      I haven’t seen the ad for the racing syndicate, though I will try to track it down, as it sounds like an interesting representation. The syndication of racehorses is about being a shareholder in a live animal. My understanding is that horses can be owned by up to 200 people, though syndicates can only have a maximum of 20 people – but horses can be owned by multiple syndicates! A quick Google search reveals that they are generally pitched as ‘living the dream’, and a chance to be a part of something special – sounds like the same approach the ad you describe takes.

      Thanks again for your comment!

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