Remembering a racehorse called Regal Monarch – killed in the 2017 Melbourne Cup

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Regal Monarch was a five-year-old bay gelding entered into the 2017 Melbourne Cup. Horses are gentle, trusting animals, who often run for brief periods, when they are startled or feel the need to flee. Highly social, they hate being left behind by their herd mates. And so Regal Monarch was trying hard to keep up with his mates, as the closely packed herd rounded a bend 2 minutes and 25 seconds into Race Four. But then something happened. Travelling at around 50 km/hr, Regal Monarch fell. Perhaps he tripped. Or was jostled by another horse. At that speed anything disrupting rhythm and balance can have catastrophic consequences, for animals weighing 500 kg or more, further weighted down by a jockey, saddle and lead weights in saddle pockets. The Melbourne Cup is a handicap race, and the minimum allowable weight carried by horses is 50 kg.

Fortunately, Regal Monarch was able to struggle to his feet. Soon after he was on a horse float being driven to the University of Melbourne Veterinary Clinic. Perhaps he would be alright after all, hoped a waiting national and international audience. Sadly, however, it was not to be. He was euthanased soon after, due to the injuries he had sustained.

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A growing body count

Regal Monarch’s death added to a growing list of horses killed at the Melbourne Cup in recent years. He was the fifth horse killed since 2013. One died from a heart attack, and four died from injuries, usually broken legs. Unfortunately, the horse’s body weight makes recovery from leg injuries extremely difficult, and the prognosis for return to competitive racing is often poor. Hence euthanasia is the usual decision.

This ever-increasing body count in Australia’s highest profile horse race should not pass unchallenged. Is it really right that so many horses are dying for our entertainment?

Horses naturally run, but not at sustained speeds, over the distances and obstacles in modern racecourses, and not whilst carrying 50+ kg of weight. The intense and sustained exercise often causing bleeding within the lungs (known as exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage). This probably results from high blood pressure within tiny blood vessels over extended periods. Some studies indicate that virtually every racehorse suffers from this at some point [1]. As Mundy [2] notes, “Extreme episodes … can cause massive internal hemorrhage [bleeding] into the lungs … subsequent asphyxia [breathing difficulty] and death.” Instead of decreasing the severity of exercise, e.g. by decreasing race lengths, the standard industry response is to give horses furosemide – a diuretic drug. This lowers blood pressure by increasing urination.

Beaten and neglected

To encourage tired horses to run, jockeys use whips. Striking a horse with a padded racing whip is at least aversive, and at worst, painful [3-5]. As McLean and McGreevy [6] note, from a behavioural science perspective, for a whip to work, “…it must have acquired the properties of a punisher at some point in time.” Beating an animal with a stick would be considered illegal in any other context – and yet, it is tolerated in horse racing.

When horses are not training or racing, unfortunately they’re often neglected. Horses are very social animals, and would naturally spend most of each day outdoors with their herd, grazing. Unfortunately however, domesticated horses are often kept on their own. In a study of racehorses on New Zealand’s North Island, Williamson and colleagues [7] found that 97% of racehorses were confined to an area less than 5 x 5 metres, for more than 12 hours each day, and 50% had no access to pasture or free exercise.

Highly concentrated diets are also common, and are quickly consumed, leaving stabled horses with very little to do for most of the day. This is very unnatural, and results in gastric (stomach) ulcers, and stereotypical behaviours. These are repetitive behaviors such as weaving, crib-biting and wind sucking, which are believed to indicate profound, ongoing stress.

Jump racing

Some parts of the racing industry are particularly egregious. Jump racing is especially dangerous for horses. In hurdle racing, horses are required to jump obstacles up to one metre in height, whilst carrying a minimum weight of 64 kg (jockey and saddle, plus handicap weight). In a steeplechase, horses jump over fences at least 1.15 m high [8]. Jump races are also usually longer than flat races. Horses that are tired or crowded by other horses have a greater risk of falls.

Because of such factors, the risk of fatality in Australian jump racing is almost 19 times that of flat racing. Catastrophic limb failure – the main cause of horseracing deaths – is 18 times greater, with cranial (head and neck) or vertebral (back) injury 120 times greater, and sudden death (e.g. from heart failure) 3.5 times greater [9]. Because of these severe risks to horses, jump racing has ceased in all but two Australian states: Victoria and South Australia. However, it still continues in New Zealand. And our horses also continue to die in Australian events. Two of the three horses that died in the opening weeks of the 2016 jump season were from New Zealand: Cliff’s Dream and Fieldmaster.

The death of Regal Monarch in the 2017 Melbourne Cup, and of all the horses who died before him in previous years, is a tragedy. The very least we can do in response is to end the most egregious parts of the racing industry, such as the use of whips, and jump racing. Please join our pledge to end jump racing in New Zealand.

Andrew Knight

SAFE, Director of Research and Education

References

  1. Sweeney CR. Exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. (1991). Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract, 7, 93–104.
  2. Mundy GD. (2000). Equine welfare. Racing. J Amer Vet Med Assoc, 216(8), 1243-1246.
  3. Lewin GR and Moshourab R. (2004). Mechanosensation and pain. J Neurobiol. 61, 30–44.
  4. McGreevy PD, Corken RA, Salvin H, et al. (2012). Whip use by jockeys in a sample of Australian thoroughbred races—an observational study. PLoS ONE 7, e33398.
  5. Taylor PM, Crosignani N, Lopes C, et al. (2016). Mechanical nociceptive thresholds using four probe configurations in horses. Vet Anaesth Analg, 43, 99–108.
  6. McLean AN and McGreevy PD. (2010). Ethical equitation: capping the price horses pay for human glory. J Vet Behav: Clin Applications Res5(4), 203-209.
  7. Williamson A, Rogers CW and Firth EC. (2007). A survey of feeding, management and faecal pH of Thoroughbred racehorses in the North Island of New Zealand. NZ Vet J, 55(6), 337-341.
  1. Ruse K, Davison A and Bridle K. (2015). Jump horse safety: reconciling public debate and Australian Thoroughbred Jump Racing Data, 2012–2014. Animals, 5(4), 1072-1091.
  2. Boden L, Anderson JA., Charles KL, et al. (2006). Risk of fatality and causes of death of thoroughbred horses associated with racing in Victoria, Australia: 1989–2004. Equine Vet J. 38, 312–318.
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