Jumps Racing History

Early History

Draconic falls at the Warrnambool Cup, May 3 1934
Source: Sporting Globe

The first jumps race took place in Ireland 1752 when two friends raced their horses from Buttevant Church to the spire of Donerail Church, jumping every obstacle in its path, giving meaning to the word “steeplechase.” If the founders of jumps racing saw the tragedy that it is today, surely they would be filled with regret.

In Australia, jumps racing dates back more than 150 years. The opposition to the sport dates back almost as far, with the first Australian protest being held in Sydney, 1848.

Since that time, all but two states in Australia have dropped jumps racing varying from reasons such as economics, animal cruelty and lack of popularity. Victoria and South Australia are the only two states which still conduct jumps races.

While Victoria has a much larger jumps racing presence than South Australia, the industry itself is minute compared to the broader racing industry. The industry in 2010 consisted of less than 30 jockeys, 70 trainers and 170 horses, all of which have been in steady decline over the past decade.

Recent History.

Sleep ‘n’ Pete – killed at Ballarat Grand National Jumps Day 2018

Since 2001 there have been five reviews (2001, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010) of jumps racing commissioned by Racing Victoria Ltd. Each review implemented several “safety” changes but they have made little or no difference to the fall and fatality rate. In short, they failed.

In 2010, with the sports future hanging by a thread every time a race was run, the number of horses that were pulled out of races early increased dramatically to 15%; triple the rate from the previous year. [4]

This increase is a direct result of the jumps industry trying to keep within the required KPIs, which simply provided a band-aid approach with no long-term solution. In the short term they probably saved many horses from catastrophic injuries on the racetrack, however the top priority was to save jumps racing, not save horses.

However more concerning than the number of jumps horses who die on the track, is the number of horses who simply ‘disappear’ from racing altogether.

Many horses who sustain non-fatal injuries on the racetrack are never seen again in any form of racing. Their whereabouts are untraceable as no records are kept of racehorses when they leave the industry.

At least 55% of the horses who competed in 2009 in jumps racing did not compete in any form of racing (flat racing or jumps racing) in 2010. [4]

Hurdle races vs steeplechase races

Zonya falls at Stony Creek. Photo: The Age.

Steeplechase races are typically longer in length and have higher jumps than hurdle races. The horses will initially compete in hurdle races and then progress to steeplechase races.

In recent years, there has been much debate about which is safer. However the statistics are so variable from year to year that there is no clear-cut answer.

After the 2009 jumps season which saw a much higher percentage of falls occurring over hurdles, there were claims that horses weren’t respecting the jumps resulting in falls. There was then a call to ban hurdle races altogether.

However, the 2010 jumps season saw most falls occurred over the higher steeplechase fences. There is now a call from within the industry to ban steeplechase races.

The issue is neither hurdle nor steeple, it is both, and while objects are placed in front of racing horses, there will continue to be falls and fatalities. Either way, it is clear that the sport cannot be made safe and will continue to kill horses on and off the racetrack.

Legislative Position – Institutionalised Cruelty

Pride of Westbury 09 - 3
Pride Of Westbury’s lifeless body lying on concrete behind the racetrack, out of view of racegoers.

It is a commonly held view that the conduct of jumps racing constitutes animal cruelty. An excerpt from ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986′ (Victoria) states:

“Cruelty. 9. A person who –
… (d) drives, conveys, carries or packs an animal in a manner or position or in circumstances which subjects or is likely to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering;… Commits an act of cruelty upon that animal and is guilty of an offence.” 

The Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, in its 1991 report on the racing industry, expressed concern about the danger of jumps racing:

“The Committee has serious concerns about the welfare of horses participating in jump races. These concerns are based on the significant probability of a horse suffering serious injury or even death as a result of participating in these events and, in particular, steeplechasing.” [3]

The Committee concluded that there was an inherent conflict between animal welfare and jumps racing which could not be eliminated by improvement to jumps or racetracks. As a result the Committee concluded that state governments should phase out jump racing over a three-year period. The NSW government banned jumps racing in June 1997.

In evidence to the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, RSPCA (NSW) stated:

“The high incidence of injuries to horses engaged in this type of racing underlines RSPCA policy of complete opposition to steeplechase and hurdle racing.” [3]

Iggy falls over the last jump at Moonee Valley.

There is also disquiet within the racing industry. Journalist Patrick McDonald, in a lengthy feature article entitled “How Safe is Oakbank?” came to the following conclusion:

“Many owners and trainers refuse to participate in jump events, but are reluctant to speak out against the sport because of industry pressure and fear of reprisals. One young, casual trainer who wrote to The Advertiser in February condemning the ‘barbarism’ of steeplechasing and the ‘public ignorance and apathy’ which allows it, was subsequently summoned before the South Australian Jockey Club and now reluctantly refuses to make further media comment.” [5]

McDonald also quoted an unnamed trainer not involved in jumps racing who compared steeplechasing with flat racing at the Morphettville course in Adelaide:

“You don’t go to the races at Morphettville on Saturday and expect a horse to fall over in a race. It happens occasionally, but not often. But when you go to a steeplechase, you’re just waiting for it to happen. You are expecting it to happen and this is what I find particularly galling about the whole thing.” [5]

[1] Stewards report Racing Victoria website
[3] Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare (1991), Aspects of Animal Welfare in the Racing Industry
[4] Rooney J, Biomechanics of Lameness in Horses , Robert E. Krieger Pub. Co., Malabar, Florida, 1977
[5] McDonald P, “How Safe is Oakbank”? The Advertiser Magazine , 30 March 1991 (p.3)