Phar Lap and the underdog narrative

The underdog narrative is popular in stories of Australian identity. Typically, an underdog is someone who, despite starting from behind, shows tenacity and fortitude to succeed against the odds. This spirit is frequently applied to descriptions of the Australian character, and the Phar Lap narrative is no exception. Ironically, while the story is rife with underdog characteristics in the way it is popularly constructed, if you look beyond the death of Phar Lap you will see what is far less frequently discussed, and that is that there were no happy endings, for any of the protagonists.

Phar Lap’s underdog status has been granted because of several factors. According to the story, he was initially dismissed by his owner David J. Davis on the basis of his looks. Second, once he started winning consistently, the racing establishment, which has been positioned as one of the main antagonists of the horse and his connections, tried to curb his streak by changing the weight-for-age scale of penalty weights.[1] However, whether this was a deliberate strategy designed to target and exclude a single horse, or was instead an attempt to open the field for other competitors, is a matter of perspective. Certainly the “anti-Establishment” angle is the favoured one. The idea that the Chairman of the Victoria Race Club (VRC) targeted Phar Lap, due to personal jealousy, is  particularly emphasized in the 1983 film version of the story. However, as a registered Thoroughbred, Phar Lap was no less a pedigreed racehorse than any other competing on the field at that time.

Further to this, another popular aspect of the Phar Lap narrative, frequently cited to support the horse’s positioning as an underdog, was his “cheap” price at auction. However it should be remembered that the 160 guineas paid for him was still too great a sum for Harry Telford, the struggling trainer whose interest in the colt was piqued by the horse’s bloodlines, to afford. Instead, Telford persuaded wealthy businessman Davis to purchase the horse.

After his initial dismissal of the animal, Davis agreed to lease him to Telford for a period of three years. Though the horse did not perform well in his early starts as a two-year-old sprinter, and lost eight of his first nine races, starting him over longer distances as a three-year-old soon brought victory. By the time Telford’s lease of Phar Lap elapsed, he was a rich man. Harry Telford is frequently portrayed as the archetypal Aussie “battler” made good, and, while the usual narrative arc holds true when the focus remains on Phar Lap’s lifetime, when the gaze shifts beyond it, we see that Harry Telford’s success did not last long beyond Phar Lap’s death.

In fact this holds true for all the key human figures in the Phar Lap narrative. The Australian triumvirate of trainer (Telford), jockey (Jim Pike) and handler (Tommy Woodcock) can all be neatly positioned into pre-existing archetypes common to such stories – providing the narrative does not travel any further than Phar Lap’s death. Going beyond this artificial endpoint in the Phar Lap chronicle reveals a less-than-happy ending for all the protagonists.

Telford failed to train any significant winners after Phar Lap died in 1932. He soon had to surrender Braeside, the training facility he was able to establish with Phar Lap’s success, and eventually retired from racing in 1957. He died in 1960. Jimmy Pike, always fond of a drink and a bet, had never been physiologically suitable to be a jockey, being naturally of a larger frame. Nonetheless, in order to meet the requisite weights he frequently endured the regime of wasting common for jockeys in those days, which left him with ongoing stomach problems. He retired as a jockey several years after Phar Lap’s death, in 1936. He met no luck as a trainer, and eventually died in poverty in 1969.

Of the three men commonly associated with Phar Lap, Tommy Woodcock did not fall as far, perhaps because, as a strapper, he never attained the elevated profile of either Phar Lap’s trainer or jockey. After Phar Lap’s death, Woodcock achieved some success as a trainer, however, in 1977, when his horse Reckless was the sentimental favourite to win the Melbourne Cup, he was beaten by the “big money” – the Bart Cumming’s trained Gold and Black. Reality failed to deliver a narratively-satisfying happy ending to Woodcock’s story, either.

Finally, let us not forget the horse himself. Phar Lap, in spite of his success and popularity, died in excruciating agony from arsenic poisoning. Though the ongoing display of his preserved remains seem to deny the fact that he only lived for five years, this is merely a comforting fantasy. The stories of those associated with Phar Lap, including the horse himself, are manipulated so as to fit the narrative arc common to the underdog tale. It is this removal of Phar Lap from the normal birth-life-death cycle, and his insertion into life everlasting via the museum, which subsequently renders him a symbol, rather than just a horse who ran fast.

Interestingly, interpreting the figure of David Davis – both within and beyond the Phar Lap narrative arc – is more problematic. Perhaps as an American, Davis resists being stereotyped into an Australian narrative – or perhaps his foreign status renders him invisible. His story does not end in the same way as the others, as he continued to enjoy success as a racehorse owner, including owning another Melbourne Cup winner, Russia, who won in 1946. Though frequently portrayed as an antagonist to Telford and ascribed the blame for taking the horse to America where he died, Davis also not only paid a significant sum of money to have the skin mounted, but then donated the mount back to the people of Australia. As such, his role in the Phar Lap story resists any easy simplification.

Phar Lap is widely seen as embodying uniquely Australian characteristics. These, of course, can only be projections. The horse himself remains elusive. All that we have left of him are physical remains encased in glass within museum walls, along with some grainy footage. Photographs and racing memorabilia, such as race programs in which he is featured, frequently appear in the catalogues of auction houses. To own a part of Phar Lap is thought to be akin to owning a part of history. He has been positioned (both literally and metaphorically) as a key symbol of Australian identity.

Scholars of religion Carole Cusack and Justine Digance point out that Phar Lap sits alongside two other venerated Australian icons – the Anzacs at Gallipolli, and Ned Kelly – and argue that “all these heroes were ultimately ‘losers’: heroic achievers who died before their time”,[2] and further observe that “Australian icons persist in being somewhat iconoclastic.”[3] Nonetheless, Phar Lap’s “loser” status is not what is emphasised in the narratives that relate to him; instead, he is idolised for the way contemporary Australians view him.

Though initially renowned as a horse who brought hope to a generation during the Great Depression, the social and economic circumstances of that era now recede into the distant past, and the horse is memorialised today for different reasons. Phar Lap is seen as embodying key traits of Australianness. These are courage and tenacity, and achieving success despite the odds. However, as an historical figure, Phar Lap’s story needs to be shoe-horned slightly to fit the proscribed narrative arc of the underdog story. In reality, Phar Lap did succeed as a racehorse, by continuing to win races under increasingly heavy weight penalties. He was a popular figure of the day, though, as argued elsewhere, this is largely attributable to the emerging advances in media technology, which ensured his visibility.

Yet the horse continues to hold the nation’s imagination as a beloved symbol of Australian national identity. This symbolic status is evident in the deviation between what Phar Lap actually did, to an emphasis on what Phar Lap means to people.[4]


[1] Museum Victoria, Phar Lap webpage, accessed June 14, 2016 ; Biff Lowry, Killing Phar Lap: an Untold Part of the Story (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014), 35.

[2] Carole M. Cusack and Justine Digance, “The Melbourne Cup: Australian Identity and Secular Pilgrimage,” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 12 (2009): 886, accessed August 1, 2014, doi: 10.1080/17430430903053109.

[3] Cusack and Digance, “The Melbourne Cup,” 886.

[4] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” ReCollections: a Journal of Museums and Collections 8 (2013).


In defence of public collections

Yesterday, Victorian auction house  Mossgreen auctioned off a large private collection of Phar Lap memorabilia, consisting mostly of race programs for events the horse competed in. The collector is an American named Gary Madeiros. Though he is portrayed as a sports fan, he is also acknowledged to be a former stockbroker who “knows how to accumulate and monetise.” [1]

Madeiros assiduously collected the Phar Lap material, writing to race clubs in Australia, and buying the last item in his collection, Phar Lap’s Agua Caliente race book, from the owner of a bar in “not the nicest neighbourhood” of San Francisco 5 years ago.[2] Now, the collection is valued at over $150,000,[3] though it was not being sold as a collection. Instead, every one of the 28 race programs was auctioned off separately. This, according to Mossgreen’s Max Williamson, is “to try and get them to collectors rather than museums.” [4]

Really? Why? What’s the objection to such objects going to museums? Of course the hard fiscal reality is that the greatest amount of cash will be realised by selling such items individually, and targeting wealthy private collectors rather than cash-strapped public institutions. But the above statement makes it sound like it is somehow morally preferable for these items to go into private hands, as though museums are the lesser choice.

This baffles me. Sold to private collectors, these socially and historically significant items will be squirelled away, enjoyed exclusively by those with the wealth to own them. Or perhaps they will go into a bank vault somewhere, where the next canny investor, fully cognisant that time will only increase their worth, sees them as a sound investment. This, of course, is completely anathema to the spirit of the museum. While it is true that only around 5% of a museum’s collection can ever be displayed at any one time, for reasons including space restrictions, resourcing, and conservation concerns, as public institutions museum collections are always available to their stakeholders – that is, the public – for research, even when not on display.

In rare instances (such as that of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia, and his hide at the Melbourne Museum), some objects that are held in such high regard by this public are retained on perpetual display in spite of what might be regarded best-practice conservation measures, simply because these objects are too important, and too well-loved, to ever be taken off exhibit.

Imagine if, at Phar Lap’s death, instead of Harry Telford’s donation of the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy, or David Davis’s donation of the hide to National Museum of Victoria, these objects had been disdainfully withheld, and alternately been put into the hands of the highest bidder, disappearing into private collections? Do we imagine for one second that these iconic objects would be as accessible to Australians as they are today? As they have been for almost a century?

I understand someone’s desire to collect as an investment, and to reap the financial rewards of their collection. It’s what the art market is founded upon, after all. But I also strongly object to any intimation that historically significant material disappearing out of  the public sphere, unavailable for public access, is somehow preferable to its acquisition by a museum. Not for the material itself, and certainly not for Australian society more broadly. The only people to benefit in these scenarios are the investors who are selling, and the increased profit margins of the auction houses.


Chris Johnston, “Phar Lap ‘stuff’ worth $150,000, and climbing,” the age online, 7 May 2016, accessed 10 May 2016

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

Off the track

We have already looked at the issue of racehorses exiting the industry and the contested statistics over exactly how many find themselves at the knackery – but where else do ex-racehorses wind up? In today’s post I’d like to focus on what is currently on offer around Australia regarding racehorse retraining programs.

Of course for many years ex-racehorses have been re-homed by their trainers and owners, but it’s only in the past five years that more formal programs, affiliated with State-based racing authorities, have been established. Most of them appear to focus on promoting the versatility of ex-racehorses through sponsoring competition events for them, but some direct retraining is also being done.

The oldest existing program appears to be the NSW Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust, which was founded in 2011 and is supported by Racing NSW.The head trainer, Scott Brodie, used to work with police horses. He has authored a book on the retraining of racehorses, ‘Horses from Courses’, and includes a series of instructional videos on the associated Facebook page. Brodie and his team ‘utilise a surprisingly smooth synergy of natural horsemanship techniques along with the practical application of classical dressage to produce quality performance horses with a foundation to set them up for a future in any discipline.’ [1]

Perhaps even more groundbreaking is that Racing NSW has partnered with the NSW Department of Corrective Services, with the horses undertaking the retraining program spending their first six months after they stop racing spelling (resting) at the St Hellier’s Correctional Facility in Muswellbrook. Brodie works with the prisoners there, who have been trained in natural horsemanship methods by him, to undertake the first six weeks of the retraining program themselves.

Support is also given by the Australian Turf Club, who provide stabling facilities at Canterbury Racecourse, in Sydney’s inner-west. Horses ready for sale are promoted on the program’s website and Facebook page, and are usually offered for around $5000.

Victoria’s ‘Off the Track’ initiative, while not a retraining program, aims to promote the ex-racing thoroughbred as a pleasure and performance horse, sponsoring events and clinics that showcase the versatility of the breed. Established in 2013, the program’s website includes contact details for approved retrainers who have been accredited by Racing Victoria.

Elsewhere in Australia, Racing and Wagering WA appear to have taken a similar (at times to the point of copy-and-paste) approach to Racing Victoria, hosting a dedicated ‘Off the Track’ section on their website, including a list of retrainers, and a link to the website of ‘Rehome a Racehorse WA’, who seem to be the organisation at the real frontline of re-homing ex-racehorses.

In South Australia, the recently established Changing Rein is still getting organised, seeking sponsors and providing a list of retrainers with self-nominated experience in working with ex-racehorses. They too appear to be following Victoria’s model of sponsoring events, rather than providing retraining directly.

Other state-based programs include Tasracing’s Off the Track program, which also appears to be newly established without much information available (though they do have a Facebook page); and Queensland’s Racehorse Rehab, started in 2013 and dedicated to re-homing racehorses, but not industry affiliated.

Neither the ACT nor the Northern Territory appear to have any programs that support horses transitioning out of the industry, affiliated or otherwise. Research has revealed that states without industry-affiliated retraining programs have a correspondingly higher percentage of horses going to the knackery,[2] which points to the success of such programs in creating viable future pathways for off the track thoroughbreds.

In July 2014, Racing Information Services Australia, the overarching national body for the industry, introduced the mandatory reporting of the retirement and exit destination of horses within 30 days of leaving the racing industry, which will hopefully lead not only to more accurate figures regarding the fate of racehorses, but will create corresponding pressure to establish solid programs supporting ex-racehorses across the country.

[1] NSW Racehorse Rehabilitation Trust Facebook page, accessed 29 july

[2] Hayek, Ariella. “Epidemiology of Horses Leaving the Racing and Breeding Industries.” Bachelor of Science (Vet Science) thesis, University of Sydney, 2004, 71.

‘A Theatre of Thrashing’: the whip in racing

Last night, popular ABC science program Catalyst did a segment on the use of the whip on racehorses (you can download Episode 8 here, or watch it on iview for the next week or so).

The padded whip, and new rules regarding its use, came into effect in Australia five years ago, in 2009. However, research indicates that it has not been the panacea against accusations of animal cruelty that the racing industry might have hoped.

The debate, put simply, comes down to this: whipping hurts the horse vs whipping doesn’t hurt the horse. The program made a point to give equal airtime to those representing both sides of the issue; those who shared their views included jockeys, trainers, and Chief Executive of the Australian Racing Board Peter McGauran on the pro-whip side, and animal welfare scientists Prof Paul McGreevy, Dr David Evans, and Dr Andrew McLean, among others, who presented more cautionary evidence about the effects of the whip.

This evidence includes a study done by McGreevy at the Gosford Races (an audio-visual of which also appeared in the Spirited exhibition at the National Museum of Australia), which found that 75% of whip strikes fell in the wrong position on the horse (according to the regulations), and 64% of which went beyond the padded section of the whip, with the hard shaft contacting the horse.

McGreevy and Evans also did another study, in which six practicing jockeys were asked to whip a dummy horse, fitted with a pressure sensor, to determine if there was any difference in force between forehand strikes (restricted) and backhand strikes (unrestricted). Their findings were that, when using their dominant hand, jockeys delivered backhanded strikes that were often more forceful than their forehanded strikes!

Countering this finding is the research of Dr Glenys Noble, Dr Peter Knight, and masters student Jessica Dodd, who also used a dummy horse mounted with a pressure sensor to measure strike force, and who concluded that backhanded strikes were less forceful than forehanded strikes. While there was no mention of the different methodologies employed by each of these studies, the video footage appeared to show a difference in the positioning of the pressure sensor. In the McGreevy experiment the sensor appeared to cover the entire section of the dummy horse behind the saddle, while in the Noble research it seemed that only a small sensor, taped to just one part of the ‘horse’, was used. The Catalyst producers also pointed out that McGreevy et al’s research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, while Noble et al’s research, which was partly funded by the racing industry, has not.

The question that inevitably emerges from all this is, is the whip really necessary?

It was pointed out that Black Caviar, perhaps Australia’s most famous racehorse ‘since Phar Lap’,* was rarely whipped in races. Sports commentator Patrick Smith once described Australian racing as ‘a theatre of thrashing’, comparing it unfavourably to the racing scene of Britain, where the use of the whip is much more tightly regulated. [1]

According to jockey Hugh Bowman, horses ‘need a whip … to help them focus.’ However, Bowman also acknowledges that ‘no matter how much you hit them, they can only go so fast.’ Fellow jockey Chris Symonds believes that the sound of the whip ‘persuades the horse to move forward’, while trainer Chris Weller sees it as a ‘guidance tool.’ Chief Executive of the ARB McGauran stressed that members of the racing industry ‘cared tenderly and lovingly for the horses’, and was keen to put across the idea that, if the whips did hurt the horses, there would be behavioral evidence of it, through what he called ‘shifting’. According to McGauran, ‘a horse will shift if it’s in pain,’ though he himself concluded that was ‘unless it’s conditioned not to.’

Dr Lydia Tong pointed out that, as prey animals, horses were among species who had an evolutionary tendency to mask pain. This means that they may well be feeling pain, while showing no outward signs of it at all. Further, Tong demonstrated that human epidermis was actually thicker than horse epidermis – not only that, but there was a higher density of nerve fibres in the horse sample. Both skin samples were taken from the flank, that is, the sensitive skin that occurs between the lower ribs and the top of the hip. This research must surely overturn the oft-cited view that horses have tougher skin than humans, once and for all!

Inevitably, presenter Dr Jonica Newby allowed herself to be subjected to a strike with the whip, and a thermal imaging camera was used to record the resulting trauma below the skin surface (echoing a similar undertaking by McGreevy, who published an article on The Conversation detailing his own experiment with whipping late last year). Newby’s thigh at the strike point was inflamed, and a bruise developed the next day. Newby herself was led to conclude that ‘the padded whip can inflict pain.’

While McGauran was quick to reassure viewers that, if conclusive evidence emerged proving that the whip caused pain, then it would ‘definitely, definitely’ be restricted, or even abolished altogether, however it’s unlikely to be as simple as that. Elsewhere, a number of critics of the whip have pointed out the role that gambling plays in perpetuating whip use – the idea being that use of the whip demonstrates the horse is being ridden to its full capacity. [2] With gambling big business in Australia, and a major supporter of the racing industry, it’s unlikely that anything as radical as whip-free racing will be implemented any time soon, even if equine pain can conclusively be proven.

As for the adrenalin coursing through a horse’s body at the time they are whipped, which many people believe means the horse doesn’t feel it, let me tell you that as someone who plays roller derby – a full-contact and highly physical sport – you might not feel those hits so much when they’re delivered on the track mid-bout, but you sure as hell feel them the next day!

* Wasn’t Makybe Diva a recent bearer of that title? How quickly we forget…


[1] Patrick Smith, ‘Luke Nolen’s finest hour was sparing Black Caviar the whip,’ The Australian 26 June 2012, accessed 25 March 2015

[2] Phil McManus, ‘2014 Melbourne Cup can become “the race that stops the whip”,’ 30 October 2014, accessed 25 March 2015; Cessar Albarran Toures and Peter John Chen, ‘There are no winners horse racing is unethical,’ the drum 22 June 2012, accessed 25 March 2015; ‘Stop floggig tired horses: it’s time for whip-free racing,’ RSPCA Australia website, accessed 25 March 2015

Object lessons

As regular readers would be aware, part of my PhD research involves a survey of museum objects that are made from parts of the horse. It seems a strange idiosyncrasy of our love of this animal, that when those who are highly prized pass on their remains are often fashioned into objects, which subsequently enter our museums and galleries.

This is particularly true with racehorses, and Phar Lap is perhaps the best known example, with his mounted hide at the Melbourne Museum, his heart on display at the National Museum of Australia, and his skeleton at Te Papa Tongarewa, in New Zealand. But there are many other such objects, and recently my survey turned up another intriguing example. Part of the Museum of Old and New Art State Collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, these two candlesticks are quite astonishing, both for their fine craftsmanship, and their provenance.

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Image of the candlesticks, including the inscription on the base. Copyright Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The long straight stem of these candlesticks is not made from the usual silver or other metal, but comes from the cannon (or metacarpal) bones of a nineteenth-century racehorse named Quiz. The remainder is made from turned Huon pine, a timber unique to Tasmania. According to the website 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930, the ‘mouldings and incisions [are] typical of smaller turned artefacts of the nineteenth century. [They] reference the mouldings and details of classical architecture.’ [1]

The underside of one of the candlesticks is inscribed in black ink with the text ‘Canon bones of the horse Quiz the Property of Mr W.H. Mence who was killed on the Brighton racecourse whilst running in the Town plate’. This inscription is grammatically ambiguous, and from an animal studies perspective begs the question, was it the canon bones, or the horse himself, who are here referred to as ‘the property’ of Mence?

The 1854 Hobart Town Plate was a weight-for-age race, meaning horses carried a certain weight according to their age – in this case, three-year-olds carried seven stone 12 pounds (50kg), four-year-olds carried eight stone 12 pounds (56 kg), etc, up to horses aged six and over, who had to carry nine stone 10 pounds (61.6 kilos!). The race was contested over a distance of 4 miles – that is almost six and a half kilometers, a huge distance. Quiz, being described as ‘aged’ (ie he was over six years old) [2], had to carry the full weight.

There were only three horses running, and the accident that led to Quiz’s death was apparently caused when the horse of one of the spectators, a Mr Waters, took off with him on board and joined the field. The horse and rider contacted Quiz, and, it was reported by both The Courier and the Colonial Times, Quiz was killed instantly [3]. This fact William Mence, the stallion’s owner and jockey*, was quick to correct. Writing to The Courier, Mence states that, following the contact between Quiz and Waters’ horse, ‘I was thrown into the air with great violence from the buck of that noble animal, who was caught by a gentleman on the ground. I led him from the fatal spot, injured and exhausted as I was, with the blood gushing through his nostrils; with difficulty he reached his stable, and fell down dead. The cause was the bursting of a main artery, which may be more fully explained before a higher tribunal.’ [4] Mence closes his account with the statement that the horse’s death represents a loss to him of over one thousand pounds. [5]

There is no information regarding the process by which Quiz went from racehorse to candlesticks, but in outlining the history of these objects there is speculation that the choice of the canon bones for this purpose was a deliberate one. According to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, ‘[b]ecause the cannon bones bear a considerable part of the horse’s weight while it is in motion, their proportions are important indicators of breeding quality. Both this fact and the size and straightness of the bones may have influenced the decision to commemorate the horse in this unusual way.’ [6]

Those familiar with racing memorabilia will know that the horse hoof inkwell (or pincushion, or ashtray) is a not uncommon form of commemoration, possibly for the same reason as those outlined above – when galloping there is a split second where a horse places all it’s weight on one hoof, hence the symbolic importance of the hoof itself. However, these candlesticks are really quite unique. I can’t help but wonder about their creation, and why Mence (if it was indeed Mence) chose to re-purpose his horse in this way.

There is in such objects the added element of the (very literal) objectification of the horse. In his letter to the editor, Mence emphasizes the monetary value of the horse several times. Quiz’s transition from prized racehorse to idiosychratic decorative arts object/s illustrates the commodification of the horse within society.

The trend for turning animals-into-objects continued well into the twentieth century. This form of commemoration appears to have gone out of favour at the same time as the horse gave way to the automobile. This fact is actually highly significant. While from a contemporary animal studies perspective we might view the re-purposing of an animal into an object as somewhat disrespectful, it is no accident that the practice died out as the ubiquitousness of the horse faded, replaced on the land and in the streets by machines. In this sense, while we may not see it this way today, perhaps the creation of objects such as the candlesticks really was a mark of respect.

* It was not unusual in the colonial period for a horse’s owner to also serve as the jockey when racing.


[1] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

[2] ‘Brighton Races,’ The Courier 3 November 1854, p. 2.

[3] ibid; ‘Local intelligence: Accident at the races,’ Colonial Times 4 November 1854, p.3.

[4] ‘The death of “Quiz”,’ The Courier 7 November 1854, p.2.

[5] ibid

[6] ‘Pair of candlesticks’, 110 Years of Tasmanian Decorative Arts 1803-1930 website, accessed 25 February 2015

Contested statistics – part two

Firstly, my apologies for the irregularity of my posting. I should have known better than to promise a two-part post in a month that included both an inter-state conference AND Christmas! However here we are with time for one more post before Christmas, so on with the show!

In my last post, I argued that the number of race horses ending up the knackery is actually much less than animal rights groups such as the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses claim. This is largely because of a mis-calculation in the number of thoroughbreds born, who do race – the estimate of only 30% eventually racing used by the CPR is actually something of an inversion of the true figure. Data analysis of statistics provided in the 2012/13 Australian Racing Fact Book showed that between 71-81% of thoroughbred foals born went on to be registered.[1] Once again it is worth pointing out that just because a horse is registered doesn’t mean it will race, however once a horse is registered it is accountable (in the statistical use of the word), and its career trajectory is traceable.

In order to counter the claims of such high numbers of horses ending up at the knackery, the racing industry has sponsored its own research. Unfortunately, the outcomes of this study, undertaken by Renee Geelen, are just as dubious as the numbers put forth by animal rights campaigners. I mentioned Geelen’s research in a previous post, where I was critical of her methodology, but given her work is being given credence, often presented to counter the figures used by the CPR, it is worth taking a closer look.

Originally published in Issue 117 of Racing and Breeding magazine and later re-interpreted for a blog post on the National Museum of Australia’s website, Geelen’s research traces the destination of 3224 horses in the racing stables of 37 trainers. [2] Here lies the first major flaw of this research; Geelen’s entire sample consisted of just 37 trainers, among a potential pool of 3,891 trainers across Australia. As a percentage, that works out to be less than .1 of a percent of the sample population. On the other hand, her study covers 3,224 horses, covering a much greater proportion of the racing population, estimated to be around 31,000 horses in any one season.

These figures reveal a significant bias in favour of metropolitan stables, which train a large number of horses. This bias is particularly problematic, as research indicates that poorly-performing horses exiting larger metropolitan stables are much less likely to be sent to the knackery, instead going to new trainers at smaller establishments. Conversely, horses from smaller stables were more likely to end up at auction or knackeries. [3] Therefore, not including smaller-scale operations significantly skews Geelen’s results.

In fact, of Geelen’s sample group of horses, only around a third (806) actually exited the industry, with the majority either going to a new trainer, still in work or going to stud. This means that the population of greatest interest when dealing with these contested statistics –  that is, horses actually exiting the industry – is much smaller than the study initially makes it appear. Geelen’s figures are outlined in the table below:

Still Racing Combined Results Total % of Retired
Different Trainer 662 21%
Still in Work/Spelling 1,015 31%
Exported 77 2%
Total 1,754 54%
Completed Racing Career
At Stud 664 21% 45%
Sold/Gifted as pleasure horse 450 14% 31%
Returned to Owner 205 6% 14%
Died/Euthanised by Vet 109 3% 7%
Unknown 19 0.6% 1.3%
Career in Racing 17 0.5% 1.2%
Knackery 6 0.2% 0.4%
Total 1,470
TOTAL 3,224

(Source: ‘What Happens to all those racehorses?,’ blog post by Renee Geelen dated 1 October 2014, People and the Environment Blog, National Museum of Australia)

By applying the above logic, we see that, of the number of horses in Geelen’s study actually exiting the industry, 0.74% go straight to the knackery, not the 0.2% claimed by Geelen. It is also worth bearing in mind the heavy bias in favour of metropolitan stables, as articulated above, indicating the true figure is probably somewhat higher.

In fact, the only peer-reviewed study that has been published on this issue found that 6.3% of racehorses exiting the industry went straight to the knackery. [4] This study, authored by Thompson, Hayek, Jones, Evans and McGreevy, and published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in August of this year, probably represents the most accurate figures when debating the number of racehorses ending up at the knackery. The authors present a clearly outlined methodology, and base their findings on a much larger and more representative sample group, which covered 3816 horses, trained by 377 trainers based in stables of all sizes, across Australia.

So if you want to get a reasonably accurate figure of the number of racehorses who go straight from racing to the knackery, and an understanding of the the way the landscape differs in this respect according to State or Territory, then the Thompson et al study is the one I recommend you read.  However, there are further issues when trying to calculate an exact number of thoroughbreds born within the racing industry who end up at the knackery. These include:

* The record-keeping practices of knackeries and abbotoirs, which do not record the type of horse slaughtered, or even necessarily how many horses are slaughtered; [5]

* Those thoroughbreds who are not registered (between 19% and 29% of the foals born each year [6]), and who therefore do not figure in industry statistics;

* The argument over when exactly an ex-racehorse can be defined as ending up at the knackery. The racing industry claim they are not responsible for these horses beyond their initial exit from racing, while others, such as the CPR, believe that, as these animals were bred for the sole purpose of racing, the industry is responsible for their welfare for the duration of their lives. And that is a whole other debate!


[1] Data extrapolated from pp. 30-40 of the 2012/2013 Australian Racing Fact Book by statistician Clinton Paine, personal communication.

[2] Renee Geelen, “The Internet Age of Misinformation,” Racing and Breeding (117):53, accessed 29 November,

[3] Thompson, PC, AR Hayek, B Jones, DL Evans and PD McGreevy. “Number, Causes and Destinations of Horses Leaving the Australian Thoroughbred and Standardbred Racing Industries.” Australian Veterinary Journal 92 (2014): 310.

[4] ibid, p. 308.

[5] Hayek, Ariella. “Epidemiology of Horses Leaving the Racing and Breeding Industries.” Bachelor of Science (Vet Science) thesis, University of Sydney, 2004.

[6] Data extrapolated from pp. 30-40 of the 2012/2013 Australian Racing Fact Book by statistician Clinton Paine, personal communication.

Contested statistics – part one

How many ex-racehorses end up at the knackery? This is a hotly-debated question at the moment, and has been the subject of some close research on my part in the past few weeks. This is going to be a two-part post. Today, I will look at the estimates that have been widely disseminated by the media, particularly in recent weeks, and point out why they are an exaggeration.

Like many others, including journalists, I have previously used the figures cited by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses regarding how many horses are sent to the knackery by the racing industry (which have changed in the years since I first came across them, when they cited a figure of 18,000). This was calculated on the assumption, widely disseminated, that only 30% of foals born actually make it as far as a race. On the basis of this, the CPR currently state that ‘approximate[ly] 10,000 [foals] will be ruthlessly discarded and mostly end up at “the doggers.”’ [1]

Unfortunately, in calculating this figure, the CPR have cited research that itself represents a misreading of the original studies. Up until this year, the only formal research in this area was done by Ariella Hayek, who in her 2004 thesis included the statement “A widely accepted figure is that only 300 of 1000 Thoroughbred foals born actually end up racing” [2]. Hayek here references studies by both Bourke and Bailey. I have not read the Bourke paper in its entirety, as I have not been able to locate a copy, however apparently the original reference reads “…in any one year, 1000 mares produce about 300 foals who finally race.” [3] There is no reference to the number of foals born from 1,000 mares.  The 1995 Bailey paper (which I have read) states “of the progeny of 1000 mares, about 300 horses start in a race.” [4] Which is somewhat ambivalent in its wording, and easily misconstrued, which I believe is what happened with Hayek.

In fact, an accurate determination of the number or percentage of horses who do eventually race is hard to make, given that there are statistics for horses who are born, and statistics for those who are registered (horses who remain unregistered are not counted in industry statistics, as they are not considered racehorses), but, as horses can be registered at any age it’s not a simple sum to work out the difference. Fortunately, I’m married to a trained statistician, who has extrapolated from the data in the Australian Racing Fact Book to come up with the following estimates covering recent years:

2008/09 13233 4546 26%
2007/08 13480 3207 19%
2006/07 13052 5450 29%
2005/06 13312 5446 29%
2004/05 13350 5242 28%
2003/04 13570 4172 24%

*allowing an estimate of 4% for overseas-born registrations

Please note, this table only represents horses who are unregistered. There are horses who are registered, who then don’t go on to race. However, you can see from this table that the figures disseminated in the media regarding the number of horses who don’t make it to the track (and who, the subsequent assumption is, all end up at the knackery) are clearly wrong.

On the other hand, because these unregistered horses don’t count in industry statistics, it is hard to ascertain exactly what happens to them. While I don’t believe every single one ends up as pet food, I also doubt that they all find happy ‘forever’ homes. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The fact that they are discounted from industry statistics is problematic, as the fate of these horses is subsequently open to speculation, and can be construed according to the agendas of either pro- or anti-racing groups.

Next week, I will look at the only peer-reviewed study to be published on this issue, as well as some of the dubious figures being offered by the racing industry.


[1] ‘Wastage’, Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses page, accessed 3 December 2014

[2] Hayek, Ariella. “Epidemiology of Horses Leaving the Racing and Breeding Industries.” Bachelor of Science (Vet Science) thesis, University of Sydney, 2004.

[3] Facebook post by Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses – Exposed dated 29 October 2014, accessed 27 November

[4] Bailey, CJ, RJ Rose, SWJ Reid, DR Hodgson, ‘Wastage in the Australian Thoroughbred Racing Industry: a survey of Sydney trainers,’ Australian Vet Journal (75), 1997, p.64.