Australian Thoroughbred Welfare Report Emphasizes Traceability, Need For New Group To Deal With OTTB Challenges

An Australian task force recently released a 141-page report summarizing its investigation into Thoroughbred welfare in that country. The group analyzed data from a number of surveys, collected feedback from more than 180 people inside and outside of the racing industry, and held consultation meetings with more than 50 organizations and individuals since March 2020 – all in an effort to define how Australian racing can improve welfare of its Thoroughbreds.

The impetus for the project was a television feature by ABC’s 7.30 program about the gaps in Australia’s aftercare system, highlighted by shocking video footage of ex-racehorses being abused prior to being killed in a slaughterhouse. The panel, comprised of veterinarians and government advisors, was supported by an industry working group which included trainers, owners, breeders, and jockey representatives.

The final report laid out 46 recommendations for change, many of which the panel believed could be handled by a new organization it tentatively called Thoroughbred Welfare Australia. Although Australian racing is governed differently than racing in the United States, there were a number of familiar echoes in both the challenges identified by the group and potential solutions.

The report’s authors, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group (TAWWG) tackled head-on the philosophical challenge that divides some in American racing when it comes to off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs). TAWWG acknowledges that “many Thoroughbreds will spend the vast majority of their lives outside the industry” and also that in many cases (including the actions of the slaughterhouse workers featured in the ABC piece), acts of abuse or neglect are perpetrated on ex-racehorses by people who are not licensed by racing authorities. Many of those people may end up with racehorses years and multiple degrees of separation after the horses’ retirement from racing or purpose breeding. Nonetheless, TAWWG points out, the public does not seem to recognize a change in the racing industry’s responsibility towards these horses simply due to their change in careers.

As in American racing, TAWWG and others have found it difficult to come up with micro-level solutions for aftercare challenges because there is not sufficient recordkeeping on current or former racehorses. One of the group’s biggest suggestions was that the industry improve traceability of Thoroughbreds, ideally as part of a national system for traceability of all horses. In Australia, as in the States, horses considered by governments to be livestock in some contexts, but not others. For the purposes of traceability, they are not monitored the same way as animals more commonly entering the human food chain like cattle, whose migration between farms and facilities must be traced for food safety purposes. As such, it is difficult to know how many horses retire from racing in need of homes, how many successfully find long-term second careers, how many are slaughtered, how many are ultimately part of neglect cases, etc.

Australian racing authorities, like The Jockey Club, do require check-ins from owners and trainers at different parts of the Thoroughbred’s life cycle. TAWWG commissioned a series of surveys to learn more about how accurate this check-in data was, and also to try to gain a sense of how many horses were coming off the track in need of new careers.

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In a 2020 study, Dr. Meredith Flash and the Australian Thoroughbred Wellbeing Project at the University of Melbourne took a look at birth records, race records, and retirement records for Thoroughbreds and found that 28 percent of horses of registered horses had not officially entered training by the age of four. Of those, a survey found 38 percent had died, 29 percent had been diverted to new careers, and 24 percent were in unofficial training by an unlicensed trainer. The survey was only answered by a fraction of potential respondents, but the data could indicate as many as 10 percent of Australia’s foal crop dies before the age of four without ever racing.

In somewhat more encouraging news however, a separate study found that by the age of eight, 65 percent of racing Thoroughbreds were retired and rehomed. Fifty-nine percent of retirements were voluntary (not due to injury) while 28 percent were due to injury.

Overall, Flash’s research found that the median age for retirement was five. Interestingly, there was also an increase in the percentage of the foal crop that raced at three between 2000 and 2016, suggesting improved health and welfare for the foal crop overall. When pulling together available data on breeding activity, Flash and others estimate that 66 percent of each foal crop would require aftercare options. Based on current Australian foal crops, that results in about 8,535 horses each year that will leave the industry in need of rehoming. That figure does not include horses that retire to breeding careers, nor horses that retire from breeding careers later.

The report also tackled the question of whether slaughter was an acceptable end to a Thoroughbred’s life. While some members of the industry were accepting of the concept philosophically, TAWWG pointed out that ethical slaughter of horses has specific requirements for facility set-up and handling to minimize stress on the animals if it is to be done humanely. (Slaughter, both for human consumption abroad and for use in animal products, is legal in Australia.)

The report indicated a need for universal welfare standards for horses, to better enable enforcement action from Thoroughbred regulators and law enforcement for mistreatment of horses, including ex-racehorses.

The new group would be charged with establishing a “national Thoroughbred safety net” for any horse who may need rescue from poor welfare situations, working with local, state, and national authorities to create a national traceability register, create diverse opportunities for Thoroughbreds in new career, build a consensus welfare standard, develop training continuing education for licensees to ease a horse’s eventual transition to an off-track career, and more. And where would the money come from for such a system? Mandatory fees for breeders ($300 on foal registration), owners ($300 when a horse is registered as a racing animals), trainers (1% of earnings), jockeys (1% of earnings), the breed registry ($1 million to $1.5 million), donations, and sponsorships. Altogether, the report estimated the new organization would have $9.9 million to $10.8 million in funding, based on current numbers.

“Without the contribution of its horses, everything from the major racing carnivals that attract international attention, the 80,000 jobs the industry supports nationwide, through to the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes raised each year, do not exist,” the report’s authors wrote. “It is therefore incumbent on the industry to take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of its horses, including those that have retired from the racetrack and the breeding farm. Indeed, the very future of the Australian Thoroughbred industry is at risk if lifelong horse welfare is not addressed.”

Access the full report here.

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