The latest of our guest columnists taking part in the Grand National debate is Michael Lynch, a senior sportswriter at Fairfax Media, publishers of The Age, Melbourne, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has written on a regular basis on Australian racing for 20 years. You can follow Michael on Twitter here
The Grand National victory of Ballabriggs took place in the early hours of Sunday morning, Australian time. But it took only a few hours for the well organised and highly vocal lobby that is seeking to shut down jumps racing completely in this country to invoke the deaths of two horses at Aintree as further evidence for their campaign against steeplechasing and hurdling.
Predictable? Yes, of course.
Australian anti jumps campaigners have already scored a number of what they would regard as ”victories” – although not the ultimate triumph – and will continue relentlessly in their fight to kill off the sport.
In their battle they are aided and abetted by a compliant general news media, particularly television, which knows an emotive and easy story when it sees one. And what is more emotive than the sight of a gallant horse straining to give its all only to crash to its death on a racecourse?
Rarely does Australian TV – nor most of the general news media – bother to concern itself overmuch with the detail, to examine all the issues surrounding jumps racing: its social and economic benefit, particularly in rural areas, the idea that it provides a lifeline for older horses deemed too slow on the flat (whose future would otherwise be the knackery) and the fact that it provides employment and a livelihood for a small but dependent sector of the agricultural and equestrian workforce.
The usual method of reportage is a dramatic picture, a few hand wringing paragraphs in which animal advocates, occupying the high moral ground, are quoted extensively, and then a couple of lines from someone in the racing industry who rarely expresses himself as clearly as he might. All topped off with an accusatory headline.
Sounds familiar no doubt. There is one huge difference, however, between jumps racing Down Under and back in the UK and Ireland, or even in nearby New Zealand.
Its level of popularity with racegoers and the betting public is minuscule compared to the interest and public support it generates in Britain. In Australia hurdling and steeplechasing is conducted only in Victoria and South Australia, with the former being very much the home of the sport. New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and West Australia – other Australian racing jurisdictions – have not had any jumping for decades.
The sport was in its heyday in the sixties, seventies and eighties: older readers, or those with a sense of history, will remember that the great Australian jumper Crisp was sent from Melbourne to be trained by Fred Winter, who sent him out to run that epic in the 1973 National when he led virtually every yard of the way under top weight before being collared in the shadows of the post by the lightly weighted Red Rum.
Red Rum’s subsequent feats suggest that Crisp’s performance that day was probably the greatest ever seen over the fearsome Liverpool fences.
All that seems a world away in Australia now, although it should be remembered that even then in Crisp’s pomp the jumpers were very much a sideshow to the flat racing stars who raced then, as now, Australia wide 12 months of the year with feature race carnivals strung out all over the country: Melbourne in spring and late summer, Sydney in the autumn, Perth in summer, Adelaide in late autumn and Brisbane in the winter.
I have lived here since the late 1980s and in that period the steeplechasers and hurdlers have raced only through the autumn and winter months (mainly April to August) and then only in the one or two races per card which were programmed for them.
The structure of the Australian industry also works against jumping. In the last 50 years, especially since the inception of the Golden Slipper, the world’s richest two year old race, the emphasis of the domestic breeding industry has very much switched to speed. Even on an eight race flat programme at Flemington during the spring carnival there are unlikely to be more than one, maybe two, races over 1600 metres or further.
As a result Australian gallopers are exceptional sprinter-milers. Silent Witness, the Hong Kong speed machine and world champion sprinter, was foaled in NSW before being sold on to Hong Kong owners.
Black Caviar, currently the world’s highest rated horse, is another extraordinary short course performer who was bred in Victoria by a sire, Bel Esprit, who was a precociously quick two year old himself. She is unbeaten in 12 starts between 1000 and 1200 metres and is yet to be tried over further.
So there are, in the equine population, fewer stoutly bred horses who stay jumping distances. Consequently there is a smaller pool of runners and less interest from owners – who all want a quick return on their investment – in buying a horse whose future lies over obstacles.
And don’t even think about the prospect of standing National Hunt stallions and breeding jumpers here: the five or six year wait for a payback is just much too long for Australian owners, many of them in syndicates, who want something that can run quickly, preferably straight away, and earn its keep.
The anti jumps lobby has intensified its activities in recent years and their well-orchestrated campaign has hit a nerve with the local politicians and the racing authorities, who are extremely sensitive to public opinion, especially that whipped up by dramatic media portrayals of a ”cruel sport”.
In 2009, after a handful of fatalities at the Warrnambool carnival – Australian jumping’s equivalent of Cheltenham and Aintree rolled into one although there are actually more flat races at the three day meeting than jumping ones – ‘chasing and hurdling was temporarily suspended as the then Labour state government reacted to the animal activist’s campaigns.
Jumping was allowed to continue eventually, but Racing Victoria, the governing body in the state, declared that it would have to meet a series of key performance indicators in 2010 to survive. These were loosely based on the number of starters per races (crucial to keep up betting turnover, as Australian punters don’t bet on jumpers anyway and even less in small fields) and the number of fatalities.
Over half a million dollars’ worth of investment in new types of obstacles improved horses’ jumping and the KPI’s were met, much to the fury of the anti lobby.
Jumping is now largely a rural affair. Flemington, the home of the Melbourne Cup, also used to stage the Grand National Hurdle and Steeplechase, but that has now been moved to Sandown, on the edge of Melbourne’s south eastern urban sprawl. Moonee Valley and Caulfield, the other two metropolitan tracks, no longer stage jump races. Neither does Flemington.
The whole issue was raised again early in April, just at the start of the new season, when a horse called Casa Boy was killed at Warrnambool. Australian Jumping Racing president Rodney Rae tried to put things in perspective when he said : “There hasn’t been a jumps racing season where we haven’t had a fatality but our objective is to reduce them and we have been doing a very good job doing that the last couple of years. In the 25-30 years of recording statistics, last year was its lowest number of fatalities.”
Two horses died in 2010, the previous lowest having been five with the average between five and eight per year, Rae said.
Racing Victoria has allowed hurdle-racing to continue for the next three years although steeplechasing is to be reviewed annually, with the whole sector subject to key performance indicators as follows: The KPI of not more than 0.65 per cent of fatalities per starters in hurdle races will be measured as a rolling three-year average (including the 2010 season) at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The future of steeplechase racing beyond the 2011 program will also be subject to a KPI of 0.65 per cent of fatalities per starters.
The KPI will be measured as a rolling two year average (including the 2010 season) at the end of the 2011 season. A change of state government might give the jumping lobby some hope, however. The new Racing Minister is Liberal Denis Napthine is a country veterinary surgeon and former Opposition leader from Warrnambool, the heartland of the sport. He is a fervent supporter of jumps racing.