CUP OF TEARS
THE first Melbourne Cup I attended was marred by seeing a horse fatally injured during the running of the race. That was 40 years ago. The horse was the favourite, Dulcify, which was partly owned in Perth.
It was a shocking moment, and one that was to recur over the next four decades as I continued to watch the race at Flemington.
There was a sense of deja vu on Tuesday and a collective and audible gasp from the crowd around me when Cliffsofmoher faltered and dropped back sharply on the first bend.
I didn’t need to train my binoculars on the horse, its faltering gait said it all.
I could scarcely watch the remainder of the race as the ghastly, ominous green screens and the horse ambulance were quickly assembled into place at the turn out of the home straight, in front of tens of thousands watching on course as well as several million watching live on TV.
I go to enough race meetings and have seen enough racing accidents involving both human and equine fatalities to be immune to this sort of catastrophe, but I’m not.
I left the course that day still numbed by what I had seen.
The fact that it was not something peculiar to the Melbourne Cup, or even to horse racing, didn’t make it any easier.
Horses are particularly vulnerable animals at the best of times.
They can (and do) come to grief in paddocks, at gymkhanas, while show jumping, in rodeos and on trail rides.
I lost three at once last year in a lightning storm, in the middle of the night, far away from any racecourse.
There were, however, a couple of things in the aftermath of that horse’s death on Tuesday that continued to rile me.
The first is the suggestion that the horse (or any horse injured in a race) was put down because it was no longer a racing proposition, that the cost of rehabilitating it was too great.
That, of course, is palpably untrue. Structural injuries in horses generally just defy healing.
Those at the forefront of veterinary science have long attempted to save valuable stud horses (who would have a long and lucrative breeding career ahead of them) without success.
That proposition is a pernicious falsehood spread mischievously by the anti-racing lobby for its own purposes.
The second is the complete refusal of the Victoria Racing authorities to even acknowledge the incident on course. Curiously, it has always been the case.
While anxious racegoers searched news sites on their phones for any positive information about the horse, the Flemington party and the presentation of the Cup continued as if nothing had happened.
No announcement, no condolences, nothing.
But for those of us in the stands, it remained the elephant in the room as we stared at the green screens hoping against hope that we might see them come down, and the horse get up.
Even come the end of the day’s racing there had been no acknowledgement of the incident.
A similar situation had occurred a few years earlier when one of the race favourites, Admire Rakti, died in its stall of exhaustion shortly after the race in 2014.
Despite the national outrage that was burning, the officials of the VRC blithely continued with the meeting and made no oncourse announcement of the tragedy at all.
From an administrator’s perspective, having a horse die in the course of your biggest event is a public relations disaster, and the subsequent fallout is massive.
Not wanting to put a pall over the festivities of the day is one thing, but the bigger issue must be the public perception of the industry.
Attempting to keep the 100,000 people on course in the dark about an incident — which instantly became global news — so as not to spoil the party, was an appallingly callous mistake.
Tom Percy is a Perth QC and can be heard on 6IX at 7.40am on Thursdays. @percyqc
Tragic: Horses are guided away from a broken-down Cliffsofmoher. Picture: Getty Images