When tragedy upsets the science of horse racing

As Fiorente swept gracefully to victory on Tuesday, to the far left of Flemington's world-famous course a horse lay unmoving, her right foreleg's cannon bone badly broken.

As Fiorente swept gracefully to victory on Tuesday, to the far left of Flemington's world-famous course a horse lay unmoving, her right foreleg's cannon bone badly broken.

Before the winning jockey had even weighed in, Verema, the $1 million pride of His Highness the Aga Khan, was euthanased at the 2000 metre mark of the Melbourne Cup track, her injury proving fatal.

The lethal injection took the sheen off the spectacle, a jarring reminder of the risks of the sport. To animal rights groups, it was yet another instance of cruelty for the sake of entertainment.

To Verema's carers, it was a tragedy. The mare's French strapper, Jonathon Fleurtot, was inconsolable after the accident. The jockey, Christophe Lemaire, who had described the five-year-old as "a classy filly", spoke for the team later that day: "When you live with these horses you become very close to them. You love them."

It was no idle boast. Race horses are treated like royalty in the high stakes world of international competition, their lives the product of hours of scientific research, hard graft and many, many thousands of dollars.

"Verema wanted for nothing, was given the most lavish and nurturing care and was greatly loved by her owner, trainer and handler," said Peter McGauran, chief executive of the Australian Racing Board. Like her contemporaries, she would have had a nutritionist, personal vet, chiropractor, physiotherapist, farrier and dentist. She took holidays and was taken to the beach. Her health was an investment. As one top NSW trainer put it: "It's worth going to all extremes to make a happy horse."

Before being taken from their mothers at around six months' old, foals are vetted for signs of future stardom, including checks on their girth, hindquarters and airway.

Only then does bidding for the youngsters begin and training start.

A typical week in the build-up to a major race like the Melbourne Cup might take the shape of three days of training broken up by days of rest.

Days begin at around 4am, with warm-ups, track work and swims interspersed by high-protein meals and rests. Along the way, horses are wiped, brushed and their tack checked, and they are visited by a legion of specialists.

Like a Capability Brown garden, the racehorse is a careful blend of nurture and nature, of wildness and control. Artificial insemination is illegal in thoroughbreds, making breeding a rigorously regimented program that sees some stallions, such as Fastnet Rock and Redoute's Choice, "serving" mares three times a day for 10 months of the year, in keeping with mares' cycles in both the southern and northern hemispheres. One strong stallion can have a progeny of hundreds, inevitably narrowing the gene pool to levels well beyond those of the wild.

Perhaps the most common complaint of inbreeding in race horses is osteochondritis dissecans, a disease causing bone chips and cysts in joints. Not uncommon are thoroughbreds with recurrent laryngeal neuropathy, colloquially known as "roarers". Though its heritability is debated, the condition affects breathing and, in turn, performance.

Verema's broken bone was plain bad luck. The mare was checked by vets twice a day before the race, said McGauran, and would not have been allowed to run should there have been even the slightest question mark over her health.

"The majority of fractures you can fix these days, but if they're galloping and the wound is open or the bone is displaced, they are often impossible to help," said Dr Rachel Salz, a vet at Randwick Equine Centre. Racehorses are bred to move and immobility, she said, would soon see the horse's health deteriorating. Coupled with pain from the break and its likely contamination, euthanasia was the most humane option.

Roy Higgins, two-time Melbourne Cup-winning jockey, is all too aware of the pressures on both horse and rider. "You can't relate it to anything else, to grand prix car drivers, to the Tour de France. We're dealing with a dumb animal and a dumb animal has its pitfalls. We expect them, like car drivers do, to give us 100 per cent every day, day in, day out."

Horses can have their off days and seemingly perfect combinations of genetics, vital statistics and top trainers do not a champion make. Superstar parents can, of course, produce a dud runner and vice versa.

When it all comes together, as it did for Higgins in the 1965 and 1967 Melbourne Cups, riding a half-tonne machine of muscle at 65km/h is akin to sitting in a Rolls Royce, he said. "You feel power. Everything works in unison and it's like sitting on a cloud, you can barely feel the horse hitting the ground." At the heart of the multibillion-dollar industry is, after all, raw natural instinct: horses are born to run.

"They are herd animals and they're built for speed. It's a flight or fight thing, they gallop in packs to get away from predators," said Salz. It follows that horses are naturally competitive. "They always want to get out of their box, they want to get onto tracks. Horses often gallop in pairs, competing with each other."

As good, clean fun as a gallop may be, racehorses carry around 53 kilograms of rider, whip in furious hand. Their lives evolve around a short, sharp career of bolting at top pace from electronic gates.

McGuaran said Australian regulators enforce the world's strongest rules to guarantee and prioritise horses' safety and health. "We operate under a social licence and if the community lose confidence in our ability to care for horses and regulate ourselves, then governments will step in. Moreover, the crowds will begin to disappear if there are any suggestions of animal cruelty in racing."

Racing on turf, as in Australia, has lower injury rates than dirt or synthetic surfaces; likewise, flat racing has fewer injuries than jumps racing.

Verema may have clipped the hoof of another horse or misstepped, sending the full bulk of her minutely-tuned 500-kilogram weight down on one leg. "You never know," said McGauran. "What we do know is that fatalities are lower now than at any point in history, because of investment in racing surfaces and veterinary science."

FATALITIES

■ The world’s most famous steeplechase, Aintree’s 7141-metre Grand National, saw seven fatalities out of 439 horses between 2000 and 2010.

■ The first listed death, in 1839, was simply recorded as being due to a ‘‘burst blood vessel’’.

■ The famous Palio di Siena in Italy saw 48 horses die between 1970 and 2007, according to the Anti-Vivisection League, though supporters of the medieval race put the count far lower.

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