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National body a key plank of long-awaited independent thoroughbred welfare report

TAWWG review makes 46 recommendations to provide industry with framework for horse care from birth to end of life 

An independent report, commissioned to help the Australian racing and breeding industries face arguably their biggest challenge over the next decade head on, has called for the establishment of a national welfare body and standards among a range of far-reaching recommendations aimed at overhauling the care of thoroughbreds in all stages of their life.

The 140-page The Most Important Participant: A Framework for Thoroughbred Welfare report, sparked by a television broadcast which aired shocking footage of former racehorses being appallingly treated and then killed, makes 46 wide-ranging recommendations, but the group stopped short of suggesting a cap of the number of horses bred each year.

Completed over two years by a four-person panel chaired by veterinarian and former Victorian premier Dr Denis Napthine, the report proposes a national body with the sole task of improving welfare, which would help coordinate policy, run programs to stimulate demand for thoroughbreds, run quality assurance schemes, and communicate to the public about welfare. 

With a proposed name of Thoroughbred Welfare Australia, it would be supported by the industry and would not be a regulatory body or have enforcement powers.

“I think welfare is so important and not just in terms of the welfare of the horse but in terms of the social licence that the racing and breeding industry has,” Dr Napthine told ANZ Bloodstock News. 

“Everybody we met with, whether they were a breeder, whether they were a trainer, whether they were somebody involved in the rehoming or somebody who is involved in the foundation of training horses and they all love their horses. 

“Everyone says we need to do better on thoroughbred welfare and we can’t simply have horses leaving racing and breeding and getting lost to the system and being put at risk.”

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group (TAWWG) review, which was commissioned after disturbing footage was aired during the ABC’s 7.30 episode The Final Race in October 2019, propose their key recommendations to improve welfare practice under the subjects below, which are:

  • Responsibility: The thoroughbred industry should take all reasonable steps to ensure its horses have a good life, including after racing, and a humane death.
  • National standards: Governments should develop, with the support of industry, national standards for all horses (not just thoroughbreds). This would mandate minimum care for horses at all stages of life, including for thoroughbreds after they exit racing and breeding. Areas covered by these standards would include end of life and transportation. Other species such as cattle and sheep have enforceable welfare standards, but these do not yet exist for horses.
  • Industry standards: The industry should develop its own national welfare standards for all thoroughbreds. These would set a higher bar than the recommended standards for all horses and would make clear to all participants, as well as the public, the minimum acceptable levels of care for thoroughbreds in the industry. Additionally, the industry should develop quality assurance (QA) schemes to drive best practice.
  • Traceability: Governments should create a national traceability register for all horses, which identifies each horse individually, as well as its location and owner. This would allow the thoroughbred industry to know where its horses are in retirement. Without such a register the expert panel said it was almost impossible to have an effective whole-of-life welfare regime.
  • Transition: The industry needs to invest more in developing programs to help thoroughbreds find new careers after retirement, to extend the positive opportunities that are already being created. Moving thoroughbreds into good homes or a purposeful second career is vital to ensure the long term welfare of these horses. More investment also needs to be put towards stimulating demand for thoroughbreds.
  • Safety net: The industry should establish a national thoroughbred safety net to support horses at risk of a poor welfare outcome after leaving racing and breeding. Such a safety net would allow the industry to help those horses over which it no longer has jurisdiction. The report points to successful overseas programs to demonstrate what can be achieved.

Racing industry bodies, as well as state and federal governments, have been called on to implement the recommendations made in the report.

The four-member panel, led by Dr Napthine, also consisted of Dr Ken Jacobs, a former director of the Australian Veterinary Association and past president of Equine Veterinarians Australia, the RSPCA’s chief science and strategy officer Dr Bidda Jones and Jack Lake, a former senior advisor on agricultural policy to the Hawke, Keating and Rudd Labor governments, who has also enjoyed Group 1 success as an owner with horses such as Preferment (Zabeel) and Unforgotten (Fastnet Rock).

TAWWG, which received more than 180 submissions and conducted more than 50 meetings with experts canvassing local and international best practice, took almost two years to complete, a year longer than initially expected, a delay partly blamed on the pandemic but also because, Dr Napthine says, “we absolutely wanted to get it right”.

Thoroughbred Breeders Australia chief executive Tom Reilly, a member of the industry working group which supported TAWWG throughout the process, believes the report is the foundation to allow the industry to continue to improve horse welfare.

“Everybody involved in racing and breeding knows there’s been a huge amount of work done in welfare, but this report shows the areas where we need to improve,” Reilly said. 

“If we implemented the recommendations we would have a proper framework where our horses are protected from birth right through to death.”

Leading trainer Chris Waller, managing director of Godolphin Australia Vin Cox, prominent owner and breeder Neil Werrett and chief executive of the Australian Trainers’ Association Andrew Nicholl as well as the chief executive of the Australian Jockeys’ Association, Martin Talty, were also members of the industry working group.

Dr Napthine said federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud and state racing ministers had already thrown their support behind the panel and expects them to play their role in enacting the recommendations.

“As a group, we were very pleased with the support we’ve received from the federal minister David Littleproud, he’s been a really strong advocate for improved welfare, the state racing ministers were met with and discussed these issues with them and they are very much on board,” Dr Napthine said. 

“They are passionate about racing, but they also understand the broader community’s genuine concern about the welfare of horses, particularly horses bred for racing and the next ten, 15, 20 years of their life when they finish on the racetrack. The ministers are right across that.” 

However, Dr Napthine, a former Victoria Premier and state Liberal leader, puts the implementation of a national horse traceability system squarely on the federal and respective state and territory governments.

“There is a role for the government to play. We clearly nail the fact that for ten years federal and state governments have been dealing with planning for national horse welfare rules and they still haven’t delivered them,” he said. 

“The Senate said we need to have a national horse identification registration system for traceability and that still hasn’t been done.

“There is real work in front of both state and federal governments to get traceability right, to get welfare standards right and these need to be pushed along as quickly as possible.”

Funding of Thoroughbred Welfare Australia and a safety net

The panel provided a suggestion that the created TWA be funded through a levy placed on breeders (an indicative $300 upon a foal being born), owners (indicative $300 levy when it is registered as a racehorse) and that trainers and jockeys could contribute one per cent of their prize-money earnings, which is estimated to be a combined $1.2 million each season, and that Racing Australia could contribute up to $1.5 million each year from its annual profit.

Sponsorship and donations, it is suggested, could also be sought to help fund TWA, as is a small percentage of the $29 billion wagered on Australian racing with bookmakers last year. The report suggested that bookmakers contribute 50 cents per active betting account, which numbers an estimated 4 million, and that would provide $2 million to fund welfare activities.

The Australian racing industry possesses a wealth of data about the racehorse from the time of birth and throughout their racing careers, but once a horse is retired the industry can easily lose track of its whereabouts. 

“There is a lot of data (available) but one of the dilemmas the industry has is once a horse leaves racing and, quite rightly, gets sold to somebody to take it to an equestrian field or take it as a recreational horse, the racing industry loses any control and any jurisdiction over that horse,” Dr Napthine said. 

“It can therefore be at risk, so we’ve got to be able to monitor that and we’ve also got to build a safety net so that any thoroughbred, anywhere in Australia, even if its 25-years-old and has had ten different owners in that period, we’ve got to have a safety net to look after that horse.”

The proposed safety net is modelled on a program already successfully in place in the UK which ensures at-risk horses who have already left the racing and breeding industry can be identified. It would include a service to assess at-risk thoroughbreds and provide advice on options including rehoming, retraining and on-site humane killing. The national safety net would report annually on all its activities.

Government-run and enforced whole-of-life traceability of horses (not just thoroughbreds) is a major plank of the panel’s finding and said it was “almost impossible” to have an effective welfare program without the ongoing record of horse ownership and location. 

“Such a database, that would require all horses to be registered, is the only way the thoroughbred industry can know what happens to its horses. Without this data, it will not be able to ensure these thoroughbreds are well cared for,” the report read. 

“Nor can it provide the community with robust data on the outcomes of horses that transition out of the industry.”

Dr Napthine told ANZ Bloodstock News: “There is no doubt that the industry responded significantly to the 7.30 report and to the community concerns about welfare. I give great credit to our racing authorities, Racing Australia and all our PRAs (Principal Racing Authorities), they are doing a top job. 

“They are allocating genuine funding to welfare, but what is missing is that national coordination, that national approach, and the national safety net to make sure nothing slips through the gaps.”

Smaller states and territories placed at a disadvantage

PRAs have implemented welfare programs via the taxing of its prize-money to help in the retraining and rehoming of racehorses, but the smaller racing jurisdictions, as Racing Queensland chief executive Brendan Parnell pointed out to the panel, are placed at a disadvantage under the current state and territory-based arrangements.

“There is a pattern of horses that begin their careers in the major racing states of NSW and Victoria but are not competitive in city-class races. So they move to regional racing and states where there is weaker competition and the costs associated with racing, such as training fees, are significantly lower,” the panel found. 

“The migration of these horses to Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory also creates a mismatch between the aftercare welfare task and the resources to carry it out.”

It was a view also shared by Thoroughbred Racing Northern Territory (TRNT) chief executive Andrew O’Toole who said the peak body also allocated one per cent of prize-money to welfare but that amounted to $80,000, far less pro-rata per horse than in other jurisdictions.

Between July and September this year, only seven per cent of the 285 horses who raced in the NT during that time started their careers in the jurisdiction with 39 per cent coming from Victoria and 27 per cent from NSW.

“The TAWWG’s view is that a thoroughbred’s welfare, and its opportunity for a purposeful second career after leaving the industry, should not depend on which state or territory it lives in,” the report said. 

About 8,500 horses each year, the report says, were retired from racing and breeding.

It became clear to TAWWG, after receiving submissions from a range of industry participants and outside groups such as the RSPCA, that the Five Domains model of animal welfare, encompassing nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state, was to be the recommended policy.

The Five Domains model of equine welfare was in 2020 embraced by the 57-country International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. Those standards adopt the guidelines in place in New Zealand.

No cap on foal numbers

While the report does not suggest the foal crop be capped, it did recommend that Racing Australia, as a priority, should work with industry stakeholders to develop a well-researched, medium-to long-term sustainable national thoroughbred breeding and racing plan. 

It should aim to align the size of the foal crop with the current and future requirements of the racing industry, and of the export and non-racing thoroughbred markets, while providing appropriately for the aftercare needs of all horses the industry produces.

There were 12,625 thoroughbreds born in Australia in 2020, making it the second largest foal crop behind the US.

The report referenced a 2020 study in which Dr Meredith Flash and the Australian Thoroughbred Wellbeing Project at the University of Melbourne matched Australian Stud Book birth records for every thoroughbred in the 2014 foal crop (13,677 horses) against RA stable returns, racing records and industry exit records.

The study found that 28 per cent of horses had not officially entered training by age four years and followed up this result by sending a questionnaire to the breeders of 1,275 of these, selected randomly from the whole group of untrained horses. 

Dr Flash found no evidence of “overproduction” of horses in Australia, according to Dr Napthine, and Racing NSW submitted that, in fact, there were too few foals being bred each year.

“But if I am running the industry, I want to know that there is going to be a reliable supply of the most important ingredient (horses). Part of that plan is we want to have enough horses to sustain racing but part of that plan must be to provide adequate after (racing) care for those horses and that is what the plan is about,” he said.

“If we need to reduce or increase the number of foals born, then base it on a logical plan rather than good luck and happenstance.”

A recommendation by the panel is for Racing Australia to create a separate category in the Australian Stud Book for thoroughbred horses that are not bred for racing purposes and would not be eligible to race. It is estimated that as many as ten per cent of thoroughbred foals are born each year for other equine pursuits other than racing.

Changes to race programming

One recommendation aimed at extending the racing careers of horses is to have PRAs adjust their racing programmes, particularly a picnic and country level, to allow for greater opportunities for horses to compete.

“The figures show that the vast majority of horses are retired by the time they’re aged five and they can race until they’re 11 or 12,” Dr Napthine said. 

“Many of those horses are retiring, not because they’re injured, but they’re retired because there’s not suitable racing opportunities for them. As it turns out, we’re seeing the Jericho Cup at Warrnambool (yesterday) which has just become a fantastic event that has captured the imagination of the racing world and community generally. 

“It is very much a race for older horses and many of them would have otherwise been retired.
“We can be innovative, whether it be the Jericho or having races for horses that haven’t won for two years. Often a horse will win a maiden and win a benchmark race but then they find it hard. Let’s have an opportunity to race these horses.”

No to industry knackery

As the industry was dealing with the fallout from the disturbing footage and the condemnation from those within it and criticism from those outside the industry, high-profile trainer Peter Moody was one who publicly called for the opening of an industry-run knackery.

But the panel found an industry-run knackery was not something the industry itself or PRAs wanted to pursue and it was not included among the 46 recommendations. 

The report also found that there was a lack of an agreed end-of-life decision-making framework that would help guide owners when making decisions.

The Meramist abattoir in Queensland – the only abattoir licensed to process horses in Australia and where vision of the horrific cruelty to former racehorses occurred – was deemed unsuitable to be used until an audited quality assurance scheme was developed for knackeries killing thoroughbreds.

Racing NSW officials also told the panel that it remained committed to its rule that prohibits industry participants sending horses for slaughter.

“The TAWWG’s view, supported by an overwhelming number of submissions, accepts the principle that if circumstances arise where a horse can no longer be appropriately cared for, ensuring a humane death is preferable to it being left alive and suffering from neglect,” the report reads.

“Once a properly considered decision has been made that it is in the best interest of the horse for it to be killed, the most appropriate method is for a rapid painless death in a suitable, preferably familiar, environment.”

If the humane slaughter of thoroughbreds was to take place in the future, an audited quality assurance scheme should be developed for knackeries killing thoroughbreds. This would allow participating facilities to demonstrate they were treating horses in a humane and dignified way at the end of life, the report says.

A number of industry bodies and corporate entities, including Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, the Australian Trainers’ Association, the Australian Jockeys’ Association, the Victoria Racing Club, the Brisbane Racing Club, AgriFutures, Tabcorp and Sportsbet, funded the independent review. 

The participants who commissioned the report will now start working with racing administrators to develop a plan to see the recommendations implemented. 

They will also liaise with state and federal governments as a number of the recommendations sit within their respective jurisdictions, such as those relating to national horse traceability and the ties helped fund the report, groups which included enforcement of welfare standards in the transport of horses and the processing of them at abattoirs and knackeries.

Dr Napthine urged the industry to embrace the recommendations.

“I certainly think most of the people in the industry who we met said welfare is one of the biggest challenges facing breeding and racing over the next decade,” he said. 

“Clearly, that challenge needs to be dealt with and this report is a very comprehensive report; it comes from genuine consultation from a wide variety of people with interests in this area and it provides a significant pathway forward.”

A timeframe to enact the recommendations has not yet been set.

“The good thing is, a lot of the state government departments and ministers have been briefed on this and I think there’s a willingness at a government level to assist the industry by putting these (recommendations) in place,” Reilly said.

Related links

Read the full report here: