The Melbourne Cup – Russian Roulette for horses

“Surely, when the odds of death are as good as the odds of winning, there is something fundamentally wrong with the competition.”

Russian Roulette is thankfully illegal for humans in Australia, but, surprisingly, each year up to twenty four horses enter a competition that amounts to much the same thing. The name of this competition is the Melbourne Cup.

A quick perusal of the internet reveals many ‘fun facts’ about the Melbourne Cup Festival, including the thousands of visitors it attracts, the large viewing audiences and the $447.6 million it contributes to the Victorian economy. Well, here is another ‘fun fact’: The odds of a horse dying in the Melbourne Cup are as good as the odds of it winning. 

Between 2013 and 2018 the Melbourne Cup awarded six winner’s trophies. In those same six years, six horses died as a direct result of their participation in the race. 

To put things in perspective, during the whole of the Second World War, about one in 32 Australians serving in the armed forces died. In the Melbourne Cup, about one in 24 horses die or suffer an ultimately fatal injury. The Second World War lasted six years and was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. The Melbourne Cup lasts for four minutes. 

The odds speak for themselves: Any patient about to undergo lifesaving surgery would much rather have the odds of a World War 2 Australian serviceman than of a Melbourne Cup horse. Yet, unlike soldiers who were fighting for their country’s freedom, these horses are merely running for our shallow amusement.

There may be nothing necessarily cruel about the Melbourne Cup. Perhaps the event could be organised in a way that did not result in harm to horses. But we must deal with the world that faces us, and not with the idealised version we prefer. The truth is that the Melbourne Cup kills and these are not random deaths. Six horses in six years is a pattern and reflects the underlying structure of the competition. 

Surely, when the odds of death are as good as the odds of winning, there is something fundamentally wrong with the competition.

We have all heard the expression “flogging a dead horse”, and we know it is meant to mean that an activity is futile. But what does it really mean? $447.6 million to the Victorian economy. 

It means a society financially richer but ethically poorer.