What’s Been Done To Improve Horse Safety Since Last Year’s Cup Tragedy?

Whatever your views on The Melbourne Cup happen to be – if you live for a flutter, or you wish the whole day would bugger off – it’s safe to say everyone agrees that the safety of horses is absolutely paramount.  
Last year, on the first Tuesday in November, things took a sombre turn, following the deaths of two horses after the event. Admire Rakti collapsed soon after the race, and several weeks later, the University of Melbourne vet who conducted the autopsy said: 

“The diagnosis is that the horse died of acute heart failure as a result of ventricular fibrillation probably, which is a disorganised heart rhythm which happens very, very rarely in human athletes and in horses and is a consequence of the athletic heart and the rapid heart rate during racing. It is very rare, but it does occur.”
A second horse, seven-year-old Araldo, had to be euthanised after suffering a broken pastern when he was startled by a race-goer waving a flag while returning to the mounting yard. 
In the aftermath of last year’s two deaths, there was widespread anger directed at the Melbourne Cup, and at Racing Victoria, with some calling for horses to be treated humanely, and others calling for an end to the Cup altogether.
This year, the RSPCA are campaigning to put an end to horse whips in Australian equestrian events, saying that they are cruel and unnecessary and do nothing to improve a horse’s chances of placing in a race.
They have circulated a petition, asking that this be the last year when whips are allowed in the Melbourne Cup, putting an end to “the most public form of animal cruelty.”
We approached the Victoria Racing Club to ask what changes have been made in the wake of last year’s public outcry, and whether they plan to respond to the RSPCA’s anti-whip petition. 
In a statement addressing the horse walk, during which Araldo stumbled and fell, VRC say that after a full investigation, they have determined practices at Flemington to be safer than those of “other racecourses.”
VRC Chief Executive Simon Love said that Flemington consulted with Racing Victoria stewards and the Victorian Jockeys Association about making changes to facilities and processes: 
“We consulted with Racing Victoria stewards and the Victorian Jockeys Association and

looked at all aspects of our facilities and processes to see if any improvements could be


The resulting changes and improvements?
The process for horses returning to the Mounting Yard for Group 1 races has been

altered so that horses will return in the natural order they arrive in from the track, rather

than waiting for the winning horse. This change means the process for

horses returning to the yard in Group 1 races is the same as all other races, and will

reduce the likelihood of congestion in the horse walk. 

The VRC has maintained its bans on certain types of behavior and objects that may

cause concern for people and horses at Flemington (including oversized flags).

Procedures to monitor crowd behavior remain in place. 

Messages in racebooks and on big screens and signage will ask racegoers to behave in

an appropriate manner when in the vicinity of horses.

So basically, the answer to the question of what’s been done to improve safety for horses in the wake of last year’s tragedy is .. not a lot.
VRC’s statement puts the onus pretty firmly on punters to be on their best behaviour, and notes that if they could go ahead and not wave flags and other banned items at horses, disturbing them and causing them to stumble, that’d be great.
The club have not yet made a statement on whether they plan to outlaw or limit the use of whips, as the RSPCA have asked them to do. We are following up with them for further comment.
We spoke to a vet, on conditions of anonymity, to ask if the whipping of horses could have contributed to an incident like the death of Admire Rakti, and were told that realistically, whipping is just one of a number of factors: 
“It’s not the whipping alone that’s to blame for incidents like that, it’s part of a whole package. It’s the exertion, it’s the crowd of 100,000 screaming fans, it’s the fact that, at 3200m, the Melbourne Cup is one of the longest races out there.”
“More than anything, it’s the fact that the horses are pushed to another level during the race – they’re pushed to hit their peak, the the maximum level of exertion for an animal like that.”

“It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that if horses weren’t being whipped, there are still other ways to stimulate and push them – you’ve got the bit, you’ve got the aggression from the jockey, and those are just two things.”

“In the case of Admire Rakti, he had an enlarged heart, which is an issue common to many racehorses, so that’s a factor as well. Ultimately, whipping could be a contributing factor to an incident like this, but it’s too simplistic to place all the blame there.”
The Melbourne Cup runs today at 3pm, local time.

Photo: Tim Carrafa