Home » Violence, gambling and animal welfare concerns: Are people turning away from the Melbourne Cup?

Violence, gambling and animal welfare concerns: Are people turning away from the Melbourne Cup?

On the first Tuesday of November each year, Australians across the country tune in to the “race that stops the nation”.
The Melbourne Cup is one of Australia’s most iconic sporting events, has its own public holiday, and has historically attracted celebrities and racing enthusiasts from around the world.

But in recent years, concerns around the Melbourne Cup – and the racing industry more broadly – have gained traction, with protests and calls to boycott the event becoming increasingly louder.

What are the concerns around the Melbourne Cup?

Concerns around the Melbourne Cup are largely centred on gambling, animal welfare, violence, wealth inequality and alcohol abuse.
Treatment of horses and the dangers of racing has been one of the key arguments against the Melbourne Cup, and seven horses have died during the event in the last decade.

Animal rights activists also object to whipping and tongue ties, and say racing can cause health issues such as bleeding from lungs and stomach ulcers.

Elio Celotto is a campaign director for the Coalition for Protection of Racehorses, a volunteer anti-racing organisation established in 2008.
Celotto said there is “no question people are turning away” from horse racing as public concerns about animal welfare increase.
“They’ve been describing it now as the race that divides the nation, and I think that is true,” Celotto said.

“As a society, we are constantly evolving … and this is one of those changes taking place; people are choosing not to support something that is cruel.”

 

Governing body Racing Victoria, with the support of the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), which operates Flemington racecourse and the Melbourne Cup, has implemented initiatives in recent years for horses competing in the Spring Racing Carnival and Melbourne Cup.

Their requirements are designed to cater to horse and jockey safety, including stringent pre-travel and pre-race veterinary screening processes.

The and its connection to gambling, alcohol and major sporting events has also been highlighted.
Dr Kirsty Forsdike is a lecturer and researcher at Latrobe University specialising in gender-based violence against women, particularly in sports settings.
She said there is a link between major sporting events and increased incidences of domestic violence.
“The increased use of alcohol, the potential for gambling during this period, we’ve got a public holiday and all these things combined increased that risk factor for the likelihood of domestic violence to occur or increase the frequency of it,” she said.

“The gambling and the alcohol don’t cause the violence, violence already exists, but you’ve got this perfect storm of these different elements which increase that risk, and these incidences tend to go up.”

For Janelle Maher, gambling was the catalyst for deciding to stop attending horse races.
She had attended races since she was a child, and would go almost every weekend as an adult, but decided to step away when she realised she was becoming addicted to gambling.
“Gambling ruins many lives and it is a serious addiction,” she said.
“I definitely miss going but I know that the temptation would be there if I kept going.”
Maher has worked with horses across the world, believes the animals are well cared for, and said racehorses receive regular vet checks, physiotherapy, dental checks, rest days and special feeds.
But when it comes to gambling, she said sporting industries should take more responsibility.

“I think a lot of people think it’s harmless and the thrill of it makes them keep doing it and eventually it becomes an issue and addicted,” she said.

For Janelle Maher, gambling was the catalyst for deciding to stop attending horse races. Source: Supplied / Janelle Maher

Geoff O’Brien frequently attended races and Melbourne Cup events with friends when he was in his 20s, but is now firmly against the sport.

After going vegan in 2015 and becoming more aware of animal welfare issues, he says everything “just clicked”.
“I thought ‘oh my god, I can not believe I have been supporting this and was so naive’,” he said.

“For my group of friends – and I would say for most attendees – it’s a day out with your mates … it’s a day to look at other people, have drinks, enjoy a good social occasion without much thought about what’s actually going on in the background.”

‘Shift in consciousness’

Ashlee Morgan, senior lecturer in sports marketing at Edith Cowan University, said there has been a “shift in collective consciousness” around horse racing.
She said while some people have turned away from racing events altogether, others still view the Melbourne Cup and Spring Carnival as aspirational social events.
“I think we’ve definitely seen a shift in the collective consciousness of the public towards horse racing, but it comes at a strange time where it’s still seen as the who’s who of Australian fame goes to the major events each year,” she said.

“There is growing momentum to highlight the animal cruelty issues and also the social implications of gambling, but at the same time, these large events like the Melbourne Cup are still put up in the spotlight … so there’s a little bit of conflict there.”

Morgan said in the age of social media, the public today has higher expectations of sporting organisations and industries when it comes to being socially responsible.
“People don’t want to just see an industry that is grounded in animal cruelty and making more money for the rich,” she said.
“We’re more aware of what organisations should be doing and how they should be working towards corporate social responsibility and having a more positive impact in society.
“So I think the pressure on the horse racing industry really highlights what the broader conversation around social and environmental responsibility is.”

Delta Goodrem was forced to turn off her Instagram comments last year amid fierce backlash for her continued involvement with the Melbourne Cup.

Despite the controversy, she said she was honoured to be returning as both ambassador and performer this year, taking the stage at Flemington Racecourse alongside Natalie Imbruglia and Jon Stevens.
“This is my fourth year as a Melbourne Cup Carnival ambassador. What I love most about the event is that it truly is an Australian moment, a part of our social fabric, that’s watched and loved globally,” Goodrem said in a VRC statement.
Fellow ambassador and Melbourne model Demi Brereton said she was thrilled to be involved after having grown up with the race day as a family tradition.

“I grew up going to the races with mum and dad, dad would be riding, and mum would be entering fashions on the field, so it’s a very special place for me and I am honoured to be working with the VRC in an official capacity again this year,” she said.

Are fewer people attending the Melbourne Cup?

Attendance at the Melbourne Cup and Spring Racing Carnival appears to have slowly decreased in recent years.
The latest Essential poll shows only 11 per cent of 1,049 people surveyed had a “high interest” in the Melbourne Cup, with only 2 in 5 Australians saying they will place a bet on the day.
The VRC’s public records date back to 1980, and show that 2006 had the highest total attendance for Spring Carnival events, which include Derby Day, the Melbourne Cup, Oaks Day and Stakes Day.

In 2006, a cumulative total of 418,069 people attended the Spring Racing Carnival, with 106,691 at the Melbourne Cup.

The highest attended Melbourne Cup was in 2003, with 122,736. In 2007, the VRC capped attendance at 120,000 to avoid overcrowding.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 81,408 people attended the Melbourne Cup.
In 2022, 73,816 people attended the Melbourne Cup, and a cumulative total of 244,208 attended Spring Carnival events, delivering $422.1 million in gross economic benefit to the state.
It’s understood organisers expect attendance at this year’s Spring Racing Carnival will be higher than in 2022.

SBS News contacted the VRC but it did not provide comment.