When I joined the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses’ team that photographs jumps races earlier this year, I knew that sooner or later I was going to be photographing a horse suffering a dreadful death. On Sunday August 28 at Sandown’s Betfair Park, it happened. Nine horses have already died so far in the Victorian and South Australian jumps racing season, either in hurdles, steeplechases or time trials. However, I hadn’t witnessed any of those deaths.
When you photograph a horse fall in a jumps race but watch it get up again, it all seems to take forever. The horse hits the jump, cartwheels and sprawls on the track, then slowly gets to its feet and sets off in pursuit of the field. (That’s not because they love to race but because they are herd animals.) When you photograph a horse fall and it isn’t going to get up, the I’m-just-about-to-spew feeling that builds up in you as the race progresses just keeps on building. When horses die, members of the team are sometimes physically sick. Most often they just cry.
Jumps racing falls usually happen at the end of the race, when the horses are exhausted and some are beginning to falter. That’s exactly how it played out in the J.J. Houlihan Hurdle. Throughout the race, the course announcers kept noting that No.6 Phaze Action was jumping terribly and I kept expecting him to fall. However, by some minor miracle, he stayed upright. As they came over the last, I thought they were all going to get through in one piece.
Then one of the backmarkers, Fergus McIver, hit the final jump and fell sideways. He sprawled on the track just in front of the jump and his jockey was catapulted half a dozen metres further along.
I ran over towards the jump, stopping across the road about 20 metres away from the fallen horse and jockey. As I got close, I saw Fergus McIver begin convulsing. The jockey slowly got to his feet and stood over his horse in a daze until someone led him to the ambulance. After what seemed forever — but was probably less than 30 seconds — Fergus McIver became still. Then men began appearing from all angles and setting up the green screen in preparation for winching his corpse onto a float.
It seemed just like a practice drill, the efficiency with which they set up the screen and backed in the float. I expect that is because they have done it enough times to be well drilled. In its own way, everything was under control.
Then one of the security guards standing in front of the screen noticed me photographing and his face reddened.
“You can put that camera down right now,” he shouted.
“I don’t think so, mate,” I said.
“OK, we’re removing you from the course,” he bellowed.
I get the odd urge to defy this kind of authority and I didn’t hold my tongue. Of course, guys such as him like being told where to go even less than they like have their orders ignored.
“Get him,” he bellowed to his underlings. He didn’t look quite fit enough to come and tackle me himself.
I thought I should get off the course before they could grab my camera and get the card. Stopping us from photographing is high on their agenda and I can easily imagine them taking the next step of destroying photos or video we had taken already.
After I got underneath the stand, I stopped running and started walking towards the gate. A security guard who had been waiting grabbed me and shouted into his walkie-talkie triumphantly: “I’ve got him.”
“You can save yourself the trouble, mate, I’m leaving,” I said. Two other breathless security guards then arrived and all three latched onto me like they were collaring a dangerous criminal. I snorted in derision: “Guys I’m leaving.”
“No you’re not. We’re having you arrested.”
“For using abusive language to course staff and for invading the course.”
Invading the course? “Piffle,” I said or maybe “bullsh-t.” I can’t quite remember.
I started walking towards the entrance and, although they easily had the brawn to stop me, they clearly didn’t have the self-belief. It must have looked comical to anyone watching — one average sized guy striding along with three big ones attached to him like giant orange limpets.
Then I was off the course with my photos intact and I joined the picket out the front. More importantly though, I had diverted course security attention away from other team photographers. One had already emailed his shots out to the media.
A group of security guards stood and protected the entrance, apparently glaring at us with simmering rage, although it was hard to be entirely sure with their wraparound sunglasses. I think I was experiencing much the same feeling as them, although for different reasons.
Several course officials in swanky suits that gave them a slightly gangsterish air, especially when paired with their wraparound sunglasses, came out to join in the general scowling. The cops just looked bored.
Then we all waited for the Grand National Steeplechase — the big prize money, main event of the day or possibly the entire calendar. With about 15-20 minutes to go, we gave security something else to get excited about. Their radios started crackling and their supervisor urgently gestured for most of them to hurry in to the stand. About 20 of our supporters, who had gone inside in their Sunday best, began unfurling makeshift butcher’s paper banners on the lawn in front of the Member’s Stand.
It took nearly all the security staff to tear up their banners and frog-march them off the course. So stretched were the security staff that several patrons, including a couple of well-known racing personalities, felt the need to help restore order by assaulting some of the protesters and helping with tearing of banners.
It wasn’t such a great look for the racing industry, which currently seems rather determined to trash its own image. Of course, it made the news in quite a big way and on every channel. What I didn’t know until I got home and watched the evening news was that a second horse, Bel Estar, had broken in a flat race and been euthanised by a course vet.
The thing that really got to me watching the news, though, was footage of a family sitting up in the stands and how they responded to seeing Fergus McIver fall and die. The mother hugged her youngest daughter close to her, while her big sister turned to her father with a look of astonishment that said: “How can this be?” and her brother sat with his head bowed contemplating his shoes.
If the decision to end jumps racing had not been rescinded, parents taking their kids to the races could still not guarantee they would never witness something like that but it would be much less likely. Parents might choose to take their kids somewhere else on the weekend instead.
*All photographs copyright to Bill King
*Bill King is a Melbourne writer and public health researcher. He is a supporter of the campaign to ban jumps racing.