The race that stopped the nation stopped the horse. So death becomes us, becomes even more part of our culture, but not in a way that grasps us by the throat and sends us into gasps of grief. No, we say it’s tragic and move on. Culture’s collateral damage really. It’s not as if a person died.
And so what’s the greater memory of the 2018 Melbourne Cup going to be, the win or the death?
Cross Counter or CliffsofMoher?
It’s a one-horse race really. The bigger the event the bigger the amplification of the winner’s name, and there is no bigger horse race in Australia. After all, it stops a nation. It bestows a public holiday upon the good state of Victoria, it allows all manner of behaviour usually kept in the cupboard for the rest of the year.
The winner enters racing’s pantheon. This way please Cross Counter.
As to CliffsofMoher, five years old, just a kid really, with a big future (he won the Epsom Derby last year) it was the green tarpaulin shields, the rushing vets, the fatal verdict, a heaving crowd of close to 100,000 unknowing. A fractured shoulder did him in.
The race had barely begun – 600 metres into the 3200 distance – when it was over for CliffsofMoher. Indeed as was his life. There are several ways this can be said: put down, destroyed, euthanised.
So he became the sixth horse to be put down, destroyed, euthanised in or from the Cup since 2013. These are the names of the others: Verema, Admire Rakti, Araldo, Red Cadeaux and Regal Monarch. The fatality list is such perhaps there should be a war memorial. Still 23 horses didn’t die this year, so the odds are obviously greatly in the favour of surviving the race.
Horses have been in the service of humans for centuries. And now that we’re more civilised, global gambling behemoths.
The RSPCA says CliffsofMoher death “highlights the very real risks to horses from racing”. Animal rights group Peta Australia, however, says 119 horses died on tracks around the nation from August 2017 to last July.
That’s a lot of equine death of which the general public knows little. But then that’s understandable. Racing is a big industry, and it rises to prominence to most of the public only during the big carnivals. But there are more than 2500 race meetings each year. And as Thoroughbred Breeders Australia says, the Australian thoroughbred industry is a world leader. With 21,500 mares and 700 stallions, it is second only to America.
It’s unrealistic to think there would not be death on the track. The aim, after all, is to gallop faster than the others. The horses may not know that, but the jockey tells the horse, by whip or word, and the horse obeys. It’s just the continuance of a long line of a relationship between the two creatures. Horses have been in the service of humans for centuries. It may be in the simple pleasure of pets or pony rides and it has been essentially in commerce – workhorse, for transport – and battle. And now that we’re more civilised, global gambling behemoths. This isn’t to say racing horses aren’t looked after. Of course they are, mostly. And sometimes, they die on the track, in service to the behemoth.
Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels had a different view. When Gulliver washes up on an island, he finds it inhabited by deformed humans called Yahoos, who are ruled over by a race of talking horses, the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver wrote:
“The many virtues of these excellent quadrupeds placed in opposite view to human corruption had so far opened my eyes and enlarged my understanding that I began to view the actions and passions of man in a very different light, and to think the honour of my own kind not worth managing.”
Swift was, of course, a cynic of human virtue. We’re not really that bad. We put green tarpaulin shields around a death.
Perhaps Caligula had the right view. Legend has it he wanted his favoured steed Incitatus to become a consul. But then, Caligula was generally agreed to be mad.
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