If there is one issue in racing where a national, coordinated effort is required, it is horse welfare. On one hand, it is the issue that can help ensure the industry’s future. Alternatively, it can lay the foundations for the sport’s demise.
The recently released report titled ‘A Framework for Thoroughbred Welfare’ puts forward over 40 recommendations to help ensure our horses are treated well post their racing lives. The report rightly states that to make such an objective achievable, it is essential that a national approach be taken to monitor horse’s movements (tracking) and to set and enforce appropriate standards of care.
The 7.30 Report in 2019 was a catalyst for the industry to act. It was an eye opener for many, both inside and outside the racing industry, that too many horses were being mistreated after they finished racing. Since then the state racing authorities have ramped up their efforts on welfare.
While funds have been applied to the topic with the best of intentions, the lines between expenditure on welfare and expenditure on protecting racing’s brand have become blurred. Supporting “off the track” activity or acquiring diagnostic equipment for horses destined for major races is certainly welcome and no doubt can promote the image of our industry. However, it is more to do with protecting racing’s brand (PR) rather than addressing the vital needs of all thoroughbreds.
At the heart of an effective welfare policy is the simple objective to know where each horse is and to know that that horse is being well cared for. With today’s technology, this is not difficult. A combination of microchips and apps can make the task simple for both the horse owner and the organisation responsible to oversee welfare. The tracking information can then be stored within a national register, whereby authorities can ensure the suitability of each horse’s whereabouts, flagging parties which may pose a risk to a horse’s welfare. Ironically, a national approach is likely to be cheaper than the accumulated piecemeal approaches taken by the individual state authorities.
State authorities could still conduct the brand welfare initiatives to support a positive image of racing and increase the demand for retired racehorses, but the critical work of managing the effective welfare program can only be done by a national body. Ideally that should be Racing Australia, however until it overcomes its current unworkable structure, an interim task force should be established to ensure implementation of the Welfare Report. At the appropriate time it can be moved across to Racing Australia.
On a smaller scale, over two years ago, OTI introduced its own tracking and monitoring program for horses that no longer bore our colours. It has not only worked very well, but it is a great source of pride to our owners and staff. Indeed, with the help of dedicated people outside of OTI, we have been able to buy back older horses that predated our welfare program and introduce them into it. This experience has shown that, while people taking our horses have a range of expectations for them, they embrace the concept of ‘ongoing care’ and are willing to keep OTI informed of their horse’s condition. Despite OTI offering funding assistance for horse’s requiring care, the costs of operating the program have been lower than expected.
For the recommendations of the Industry Welfare Report to be implemented and then work efficiently, it must be championed by all state authorities. Failure by them to develop a co-ordinated (National) program will not only show racing’s distractors that we are not serious about welfare, but it will surely lay the groundwork for more 7.30 Report style presentations – each one providing the ammunition for governments to take control of welfare, given that we have not been prepared to do it ourselves.