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An Obituary For The Melbourne Cup's Dead Horses

In the wake of yesterday's sad day of racing, we look back at the sad and weirdly engineered lives of Admire Rakti and Araldo.
November 5, 2014, 4:43am
Image via Flickr user Chris Phutully

​Ten minutes after coming last at yesterday's Melbourne Cup, Japanese race favourite, Admire Rakti, keeled over in the stable and died of acute hea​rt failure. Not long after, the seventh-placed Araldo became spooked, broke its leg on a fence, and had to be euthanised. These events, along with the two ho​​rses withdrawn earlier for health issues, once again drew attention to the racing industry. Namely, what are these horses going through? We took a closer look at their celebrated yet strangely engineered lives, and ended up writing them an obituary.

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Admire Rakti was born Febuary 20, 2008 at Northern Farm in Hokkaido, Japan. Only 22 days later, a bay-coloured foal named Araldo was born in the UK. Each of these horses began life at world-class breeding centres whose conditions were excellent, save for the abnormal requirements of the race industry. Most horses can't naturally do the Melbourne Cup's 3.2 kilometres at a gallop, so it takes a combination of nurture and blind genetic luck to create horses that can. This biological improbability requires a lot of breeding to create a winner, so Rakti's and Araldo's mothers, respectively named Admire Teresa and Alanda were kept pregnant most of their lives. Additionally, they both gave birth in winter instead of spring to better suit the industry's scheduling needs. This was achieved with a group of drugs called ​​prostaglandins​​, which alter hormone cycles and induce labor. The mares were also kept indoors with artificial lighting to mimic spring temperatures and daylight hours.

Once born, both foals were removed from their mothers who would again need to be impregnated. They were then milked by a "nurse mare" who have had their own foals removed (and usually killed as byproduct) so they can produce milk for racehorses. This is a controversial practice and a lot of breeders don't participate, but it's still common enough to be the rule.

Between 12 and 24 months old, the young horses, or yearl​ings began basic training. For Rakti this was in the snowy valleys of Japan's most northerly island, while Araldo's formative years were spent in Ireland. Training was unique to each, but the process generally began with desensitisation so each animal became comfortable with humans. This includes round penning, which means moving the horse around a small, enclosed yard and getting it used to saddles. For the most part, this aspect of race horse's life is fairly uncontroversial, although their diets were mostly abnormal.

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As they grew they each required more energy dense foods, which as with long-distance human runners, meant carbohydrates in the form of grains. The problem is that horses evolved eating grass, which is consumed consistently throughout the day. When horses eat grain only twice a day, they continue to produces the gastric acids needed around the clock, which ends up sitting in their stomachs. It then attacks the lining and causes a painful condition called equine gastric ulc​er syndrome (EGUS). Between 50 and 90 ​percent of domesticated horses suffer this and, in racehorses, it's thought to be closer to 9​0 percent. The condition is incredibly painful and can be fatal. This, combined with gruelling training regimes and constant travel means horses sometimes die before they run their first race.

It's likely that both Rakti and Araldo suffered EGUS, in which case they would have been given various pain relief drugs. Aus​tralian racing has strict and heavily enforced powers around drugs and there is no firm figure on rates of drug use in the industry. What is known is that the use of pain-relief medication is common, as it is with humans and other animals. Problems arise when it allows horses continue to train with injuries. Where a human may take a paracetamol to cope with an injury, they remain aware of it and can consciously protect the area. Horses obviously don't have that foresight and will continue to train, compounding previous issues.

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And then there's race day. While Araldo was already in the country, Rakti was flown to Melbourne from Tokyo, via Singapore, in a horse transport container, which looks a bit like a small shipping container. Travelling is incredibly stressful to a herd animal that's evolved to run from threats and subsequently they're transported enclosed. This is also how they're kept in stables before the Melbourne Cup, as being near hun​dreds of thousands of people can also cause stress induced health problems. Horses are naturally prey animals, so their instinct is to look for predators. The theory is that confining them means they feel less vulnerable, but this only works to a degree.

With the beginning of the race comes one of the most controversial aspects of racing: whips. Although there's debate over the pain caused by the practice, we do know that the threat of the whip is what spurs the animals to perform beyond their physical means. "It's this exertion that's usually at the heart of the injuries and deaths, as seen yesterday," explains Elio Celotto from the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

"In Australia, 125 horses died in the last 12 months on race tracks. But countless more sustained injuries that weren't severe enough to break them down on track, but enough to end their careers."

Most of these injuries were muscular or skeletal, fractured bones or tendon injuries. They go largely unreported because they're often undetected until after the race. Elio elaborates, "You'll see a report that says the horse performed poorly but vet inspection revealed no abnormalities, but you never see the race horse again. They report no abnormalities but the inflammation may take a few hours."

Even if a horse makes it through a race without injury, they mostly all experience acute physical stress. Around​ half of all animals will experience ble​eding lungs following​ a race. Many point to this as evidence that the animals are pushed well beyond their natural physical capabilities through stress and the threat of the whip.

For Dwayne Dunn atop Araldo, he had no idea of what was about to happen. "He ran terrific," he merrily told The ​Roar. "He sprinted well off the corner and will benefit really well from running the trip."

But for Zac Purton, the jockey riding Rakti, he knew the horse was struggling. "I knew he was in trouble when he didn't tow me into the race around halfway from home," he says. "It's very sad. He gave me a great thrill at Caulfield and for this to happen to him is just not fair."

Admire Rakti  and Araldo were front page news because of an expectation for how they should have performed yesterday. They were each an image of success in breeding and training. Viewed as members of their species, they were also genetic anomalies, manipulated since birth to perform in a way that wild animals do not. Their deaths weren't the conclusion to a natural life, but neither were they unfamiliar to racehorses everywhere.