The racing industry once enjoyed a reputation of being the sport of kings. It attracts the rich and famous and ordinary Australians alike. The Melbourne Cup was an annual ritual that was widely celebrated and never questioned, however, attitudes are starting to change.
They maintain that the thoroughbred is one of the best cared for animals in the world. But what happens to racehorses after their careers are over? Many animal welfare organisations including the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses have suggested that many thousands of racehorses end up at the knackery, where they will be killed for dog food.
The racing industry, until recently, has remained quiet on the issue.
In recent years the image of horse racing and the treatment of racehorses has been under constant scrutiny. With falling attendance figures (such as the Melbourne Cup Carnival seeing a steady decline of 20% since 2008), the racing industry was forced to respond.
In the last three years, two studies have been commissioned by the racing industry to debunk “myths” about the number of horses sent to slaughter. The results indicated that the vast majority of racehorses are re-homed where they will live out the rest of lives. However, the integrity of both studies must be questioned, appearing to be more of a propaganda exercise than scientific research.
Below is our analysis of both studies, based on the content which has been made available so far:
Study 1 – Renee Geelen, 2013
“This is a ground breaking study that injects statistical rigour and accuracy into an emotive debate characterised by exaggeration and distortion.” – Peter McGauran, former CEO Racing Australia. (Reference The internet Age of Misinformation by Renee Geelen)
Title: Unknown (referred to as The Renee Geelen Study) Author: Renee Geelen Date published: Unknown Peer reviewed: Unknown
Renee Geelen has worked in the racing industry for 15 years and is very passionate and supportive of it. While she seems well qualified to conduct such a study, her involvement begs the question as to why an independent researcher was not chosen. This would have given more integrity to the report, rather than being just an internal study.
In the article, “The internet age of Misinformation” written by Geelen, she very clearly demonstrates her bias in favour of the racing industry. What she then failed to do is describe how, as the researcher, she maintained any kind of distance and objectivity during the conduct of the research. This makes it difficult from the outset for this study to have any credibility.
Aim: In the most detailed commentary by Geelen herself, ‘The Internet Age of Misinformation’, she states, “CPR gathered donations…because they spread sensationalist misinformation about our racehorses” and “In order to stop this we need data” which she explains, is why she was commissioned by the then Australian Racing Board to design and undertake a survey.
Has the study been published or peer reviewed?
Despite the racing industry using this study to defend their position, it is still unknown whether the study has been published in full and/or peer reviewed.
Geelen has been contacted numerous times for access to the study, however she declined stating that it is the intellectual property of Racing Australia. A similar request was made to Racing Australia and we are yet to receive a response.
Because the study (to our knowledge) is not currently available, we can only comment on the articles written about the study.
The study has not been peer reviewed, to our knowledge.
Despite the above, Peter McGauran and racing associates have used the report to try to support their position that most racehorses are re-homed.
The study does not include the 3000 racehorses that are retired from the breeding cycle (currently unaccounted for).
The study does not include the estimated 5000 foals born into the industry that don’t make it to the racetrack (also unaccounted for).
The trainers who participated in the survey were selected by the researcher, rather than being chosen at random.
Geelen’s entire sample consisted of just 37 trainers, among a potential pool of 3,891 across Australia. This is a mere 0.1 of a percent. There is no information or other indication about whether this group is representative of all trainers. This raises serious questions about the validity of Geelen’s findings.
The sample population of horses in the study has a heavy bias towards coming from larger stables. As Geelen points out in the article in ‘The internet Age of Misinformation’ the larger the stable, the more likely the horse will be transferred to another trainer or enter the breeding cycle, while the smaller trainers are more likely to send their horses to the knackery or saleyard.
The data only looks at where horses went immediately after racing but fails to consider their end destination, which is of greater importance.
The study includes categories such as ‘sold/gifted as pleasure horse’, ‘returned to owner’ and ‘unknown’, which are vague and do not provide sufficient information to suggest the horses have been permanently re-homed. Many horses are often on sold if they are found unsuitable for the purpose they were intended. Without the demand for racehorses, this will often mean that they end up at a knackery or slaughterhouse.
There is no evidence that the data was collected from a representative sample and there is no statement about the limitations of the study.
Study 2 – Epidemiology of Thoroughbred Racehorses Entering and Leaving the Victorian Racing Industry By Meredith Flash BVSc, 2015
Title: Epidemiology of Thoroughbred Racehorses Entering and Leaving the Victorian Racing Industry Author: Meredith Flash Date published: Unknown Peer reviewed: Unknown
The Meredith study was released in October 2015. On her Facebook page ‘Flash Veterinary Services’, Flash highlighted her study in a post on 11th October 2015. She also provided a link to a Powerpoint presentation that became the main subject matter of several articles that appeared on websites around the same time.
The full paper does not appear to be publicly available. Racing Victoria and Flash have both been contacted to request a copy of the study however to date have not responded.
As is the case with the Geelen study, comments can only be made on the information made available through online articles.
Aims: The Meredith Flash study sets out to examine an entire foal crop in a single year (2005) in Victoria and determine the following:
To look at the number of foals that race;
Examine the individual racing career profiles; and
Examine the destination of horses after they exit their racing careers.
The full report study has not been published.
The full report study is not publicly available.
The study has not been peer reviewed to date.
The study claims to cover an entire crop of racehorses born in 2005 in Victoria which totaled 4115 foals. This claim is inaccurate. Mysteriously and without explanation, 1315 (32%) horses were excluded from the study because they ran their last race outside of Victoria. No explanation is given why they were excluded. The problem is that the excluded portion is unlikely to be random, and therefore data collected from the sample should not be extrapolated to represent the entire population.
The study conducted an exit survey of all the horses by contacting the owners by phone. Not all the owners/trainers responded and so again these horses were excluded from the results. The horses that were excluded are the very ones that are most likely to have been discarded, yet they have no representation in the survey. 91% of owners responded to horses who did race. 61% of owners responded whose horses didn’t race.
Conducting a phone survey of this nature, on a controversial and sensitive issue, is not considered best practice because it allows the interviewer the opportunity to either deliberately or inadvertently give information which may influence the responses. For example, it would be undesirable for any trainer/owner to reveal that they sent their horses to the knackery as it would paint themselves and their industry in a bad light, especially at a time where it is being so heavily scrutinised. In essence it would be like phone surveying trainers directly, and asking them if they have used cobalt to improve performance of their horses. Such a survey and its results would have no credibility.
In the exit survey, only the immediate destination after a racehorse is retired is given. There is no information about what happens to racehorses thereafter and importantly no attempt was made to find out either. It is well known that many ex-racehorses may go through several owners in a very short period of time and end up in a knackery pen awaiting slaughter. This has not been addressed or even considered in this study.
The study claims to be the first study of an entire foal crop, yet of the 4115 horses who were bred in 2005, only 2216 have been accounted for through the exit survey. And even then the information provided was accepted without verification, which raises further questions about the validity of this research.
Our researchers counted:
From a total of 4115 horses, when you subtract: 1315 (excluded) 584 (non-response by trainers) 355 (status not known) Only 1861 or 45% horses are accounted for.
Excerpt from survey results:
Survey statement: “At the time of the exit survey, 65% of horses were either still racing or had exited the racing and breeding industries alive.”
Analysis: This is false, as according to these figures 25% were still racing or breeding, therefore had not yet exited these industries. Only 40% can be said to have exited these industries alive.
Both studies appear to have been engineered to achieve a desired outcome, and that is to dispel claims that most racehorses are sent to slaughter.
The studies exclude large groups of horses that are the most vulnerable and the most likely to have found their lives prematurely end at a slaughterhouse or knackery.
The studies only looks at where horses went immediately after racing but do not consider their end destination. Even then, the information relies totally on the information provided by trainers. If the racing industry wants to take horse welfare seriously, they must also seek to ensure that rehomed horses are going to long term and suitable homes.
In conclusion, neither study has been published in full, peer reviewed or even made publicly available. For these reasons, the results have little credibility and should not be used to support the various assertions being made by the industry.