"You people are the scum of the earth," the man tells me through gritted teeth.
"You really are."
He has come to the Sandown races for a good time and we are obviously spoiling things for him. It’s the first weekend in June and we are here protesting against jumps racing. The jumps racing season runs from March to August, with 60 races scheduled in Victoria (which is less than half the number of flat races run every week).
Why are we pushing for jumps racing to be banned? The short answer is that jumps horses are 20 times more likely to die on the track than flat racing horses. According to Animals Australia, there have been seven deaths so far this year in jumps races and time trials in Victoria and South Australia. (Jumps racing is now illegal in NSW and has been voluntarily discontinued in all other states.)
There have also been 28 falls, according to the stewards’ reports (which can be read here on the Racing Victoria website). Many of the horses that fall sustain injuries that leave them unfit to race and are never seen again. The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses has trawled through the starting lists and estimates that between 55 and 75 per cent of jumps horses that race in any season do not reappear on the track the next year. So much for jumps racing being the second chance that saves failed flat racing horses from the knackery.
What I am planning to do next would probably outrage the man who thinks we are the scum of the earth even more. I’m one of a team from the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses heading inside to document proceedings. Most of the time, when horses fall, we manage to document it and pass the photos and video on to the media. Images, even more than statistics, are what will win this battle for us.
The first race on the card is a flat race and I photograph the latter part, then the winners coming in. The two track announcers do their round up of the first then chat about the rest of the card. They announce that the next race is a steeplechase. They’re excited.
"I’ve done a lot of thinking about this … and I accept that jumps racing is riskier … but I say: ‘Let’s get on with it!’" one of them announces. The people sitting near me all laugh and nod in agreement.
Ten minutes before Race Two I head down to the end of the grandstand, near the last jump before the finish line and pull out my camera to check my earlier photos and adjust my settings. I should have waited a bit longer. A group of five — a man who I presume is a course steward, three uniformed security guards and a policeman — stride up to me very purposefully and stand surrounding me, right in what polite people would recognise as my personal space. If the intended effect was to be menacing, they have succeeded.
"You have a camera, mate. Where is your accreditation? Are you a professional photographer?" the steward asks. I laugh. "No! I’m a beginner hobby photographer! I’m just taking some shots for fun — it’s interesting," I say, hopefully mixing a lie with the truth in a convincing way. I offer him my camera to have a look at my earlier shots. He waves it away.
"No one is allowed to take photographs in here without our permission. It’s a condition of entry. You must have seen that when you came in. By the way, not only have you not been given permission to take photographs, I am ordering you not to take any. There are jumps races here today and there are protesters. We can’t let just anyone run around with a camera." I’m assuming that means if something bad happens today, they want there to be as few pictures as possible.
However, despite what the steward says, the actual rule, according to the notices at the entrances, is that nobody is allowed to take photographs for commercial purposes without permission. If I wind up taking a photograph here that needs to be made public, the last thing I would want is to be paid for it.
"I guess I’d better put my camera away then," I say. I pull my sandwich and thermos out of my bag and put the camera in.
"Yes you had better," says the steward sternly. He’s one of those guys who lives to enforce rules and keep things in order. The policeman smiles but in a way I can’t quite interpret. I’m wondering if he is embarrassed about being roped into all of this.
A few minutes later, while I’m am sipping on my coffee, one of the security guards comes back up the hill to give me a second warning.
"No shots mate, OK?"
"OK mate," I say meekly.
That’s another thing I should mention. As well as not being here to make money, we aren’t here to make a scene in the event that bad things happen. We just want to keep a low profile and get the photos and video.
I wander off, a bit further from the action and organise my camera inside the bag so it is ready to go.
The first lap of Race Two goes without incident. All the horses clear the final jump of the lap and I get photos of it all, apparently without being noticed. The first lap isn’t where things usually go pear shaped, though. The horses are usually still fresh and not going flat out yet.
A couple of minutes later, the pack is coming around to the final jump and I pull my camera out again and get it focused. As the horses come over the jump I hold the button down and the camera takes a burst of six or seven shots. As the last two horses come over together and land safely, I take my finger off the button.
The only thing is the last two haven’t actually landed safely together. The one on the right, which I had focused on, lands safely but something I can’t quite process is happening. Out of the corner of my eye I see that the one on the left has crashed through the fence rather than jumping it and is now somersaulting through the air. Then he’s sprawled on the track and I’m thinking: "Oh shit, he’s going to die." I stab at the button but nothing happens because the camera is tied up processing the last burst. I stab at the button again and it takes two shots which will be ruined by camera shake for sure.
Amid all this, I’m thinking: "Why is there all this cheering and screaming when this is happening?" Then I realize that most of the crowd has simply not registered there has been a fall. They are totally focused on which horse is going to win.
The fallen horse, which is called Morsonique, gets up, miraculously unhurt. The announcers do their round up and announce that Morsonique fell at the last hurdle but everything turned out fine, due to brilliant thinking by the jockey, who dropped the reins and let the horse do whatever he needed to. One of the things jumps racing enthusiasts argue is that it requires more skill than flat racing and seeing those skills in action is part of what makes jumps racing so thrilling for them.
I don’t doubt the skill of the jockeys for a moment but the way I see it, it wasn’t skill that saved Morsonique from breaking his neck, it was luck. I don’t know what the course announcers say when fallen horses don’t get up again. I’m new to this and Morsonique’s fall is the worst I have seen. However, other members of the team have photographed or videoed a number of fatal falls. They tell me that these play over and over in their minds.
I’m half expecting security to come after me so I go inside and have a beer among the banks of monitors telecasting races from all over the country, along with endlessly changing screens of numbers: odds, winners and payouts.
The second jumps race thankfully goes without incident. I’m done for the day, apart from getting a photo of the terms of entry notice on my way out. A punter, who is also leaving early stops to say something to me. I’m not sure if he realises I’m one of the protesters or not.
"What about that second hurdle? It was magnificent!" he says. He’s beaming. I’m guessing he had a big win.
"If it always went like that, I wouldn’t be protesting," I explain. "But it doesn’t does it?"
He waves a dismissive hand and hurries off.
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