A racehorse gallops into a children’s playground. It sounds like the set-up of a joke right? But there was absolutely nothing humorous about what took place at the Taranaki Cup on February 6th.
Concert Hall, touted as one of New Zealand’s best racehorses, took fright while being loaded into the starting gates. After dislodging her rider the mare cantered away from the track, ultimately sliding into a perimeter fence, flipping over it and landing on her back. The distressed mare then galloped through a nearby playground, across a busy road and into a park.
Those unfamiliar with horseracing may be surprised to hear that a racehorse considered a ‘superstar’ and ‘hot favourite’ would take flight before the race even began. However, horses being unwilling to enter the starting gates is a surprisingly common occurrence. During the Taranaki Cup alone, there were two other documented instances of horses being ‘fractious in the barrier’, industry terminology for this issue. In fact, it is so common that New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing’s policy manual includes detailed guidelines around how many attempts may be made to load a distressed or unruly horse into the starting gate, and how long may be spent on such attempts.
While many supporters of horse racing claim that the horses involved actually enjoy racing, the prevalence of this issue clearly proves otherwise. Horses routinely resist being forced into the confined space of a starting gate, as this is something that goes against all their natural instincts. There are numerous documented instances of racehorses suffering injuries while attempting to escape this artificial restraint. So unwilling are many horses, that it is not uncommon for a ‘buggy whip’ to be used on them. For some horses, deeply traumatised by past experiences with such a whip, the mere sight of one being brandished near them will be enough for them to become more manageable. While those involved in the industry will call this ‘training’, what it really is, is the use of force to such an extent that an animal will go against its natural instincts out of fear of violence being used against them. Interestingly, within NZTR’s Starters and Barrier Management Manual there is a policy that explicitly states Trackside shall not show “close up shots of use of the Buggy Whip or of the loading area of the Starting Gates whilst the Buggy Whip is in use.”
Which leads to the obvious question, what is it they don’t want the general public to witness?
When talking to the media after the event, the trainers of Concert Hall emphasised how lucky they were. Concert Hall only sustained mild injuries, suffering bruising and grazed skin off her legs. One of the trainers, Roger James, remarked “It could have been so much worse. The road she crossed had she taken a different turn she would have ended up in the centre of the city and I hate to think what would have happened.”
What reporters neglected to mention in the article, was the fact that this elite racehorse was just as likely to have died on the track that day, participating in the race, as she was off-track in some freak accident. The slightest injury during racing can mean immediate euthanasia for a horse. Only 6 weeks into 2021 there have already been two on-track euthanasias at New Zealand races, last year 12 were recorded, while 2019 saw 19.
Given the incredible stress, both physical and mental, that racehorses are forced to endure, it’s perhaps little wonder that Concert Hall felt compelled to take the action she did. Unfortunately for her, Concert Hall is expected to be returned to racing in a few weeks.
Media coverage on the incident here.