CUP OF TEARS

The Sunday Times - - OPINION - Tom Percy

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

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