The future of jumps racing in Australia is in serious doubt following yet another series of tragic falls that turned Saturday’s Grand National Hurdle at Flemington into a public relations disaster for the racing industry. Just four of the 13 starters finished the race and two horses had to be put down in one of the premier hurdles events on the Australian racing calendar.

With the jumps racing season barely half over 10 horses have been put down following falls in races in the two states where jumps racing is not outlawed — Victoria and South Australia. In the whole of the 2007 season there were seven fatalities.

Even before Saturday’s tragedy, there was pressure for jumps racing to be outlawed. Victoria’s Racing Minister, Rob Hulls, some weeks ago ordered Racing Victoria to bring forward a review into the future of jumps racing.

The RSPCA is not the only organisation calling for jumps racing to be outlawed. Increasingly, the flat racing industry is concerned at the damage falls in hurdle events — especially in major races watched by punters around the nation — does to the image of the sport of thoroughbred racing.

Jumps racing proponents are blaming the state of the Flemington track for Saturday’s tragedies, but that does not counter the reality that the number of falls at other tracks this season has risen dramatically.

Jumps racing has been in decline for some time. In Victoria it is now largely confined to the winter and late autumn months. The Cup Day Hurdle has long ceased to be a part of the Melbourne Cup Day program at Flemington.  The other problem with jumps racing events is that they are not popular with punters. And when only four horses in a field of thirteen complete the race how could they be?

The Victorian racing industry will probably fight any move by the state government to abolish or phase out jumps racing. Hurdle events fill a gap in the racing calendar between the autumn and spring racing carnivals in Melbourne, and the Warrnambool jumps carnival in May is a major local attraction.

But the days of jumps racing are numbered. Saturday’s tragic Grand National Hurdle makes that even more certain.

Horse rider, breeder and owner Venise Alstergen writes:

Jumping races are anathema to me, whereas eventing and show-jumping is fantastic. Horse and rider have trained for years. Together they move in harmony. Jumps racing seems to work in the UK but not in Victoria or South Australia. Tasmania finally banned it last year.

Jumps jocks are flat racers who’ve grown too big for the game. In the case of horses it’s generally the ones who’ve failed on the flat. I can’t think of any who’ve been trained solely for jumping. Apart from the Grand National Hurdle, the Grand National Steeple Chase, the A.J. Hisken’s Steeple, a couple of others perhaps, there is absolutely no money in it.

Whatever the motives, where the whole thing comes unstuck is the combination of horses trained for “the flat” and unskilled riders. They don’t use staying horses, they use sprinters which need to breathe more often, and which can get a tank full of air in the act of jumping. How owners manage to bribe the VRC into allowing it is beyond me. Does the Minister for Racing might know?

Yes, there is a training school for these hoops, but the course ain’t long enough. Also you’re not dealing with Einsteins. It’s hard work trying to get some kid from Wangaratta to realise a horse is a living, feeling creature, who responds to kindness far more readily than it does to rough handling.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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