A desire to create hubs in Sri Lanka is nothing new, as we observe from recent political manifestos and political verbiage – naval hubs, civil aviation hubs, commercial hubs, energy hubs, knowledge hubs and so on.  And now we hear of a horse racing hub – the Nuwara Eliya Royal Turf Club wants to “restore [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Horse racing: Consider what lies behind the glamour


A desire to create hubs in Sri Lanka is nothing new, as we observe from recent political manifestos and political verbiage – naval hubs, civil aviation hubs, commercial hubs, energy hubs, knowledge hubs and so on.  And now we hear of a horse racing hub – the Nuwara Eliya Royal Turf Club wants to “restore this wonderful sport to its former glory”, commence a breeding industry and make this country a regional hub for horse races.

Some say horse racing is a noble sport. But for those campaigning worldwide to make this planet abuse free, for animals, it is an unethical sport.

“Behind the romanticized façade of thoroughbred horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are running for their lives”  – that’s how PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), an international non-profit organization with affiliates worldwide, sums up horse races, adding that horses are the victims of a multi-billion dollar industry. Animals Australia, the voice for animals in that nation says that horse racing has perhaps the most glamorous image of all so-called animal sports (especially when compared to the visually obvious cruelty of rodeos) and is a sport  where “socialites spend thousands on designer outfits, the champagne flows, and millions of dollars are gambled on theoutcome of races”.

President’s Counsel Jayantha Gunasekera, writing about the 1949 “Turf Club Robbery and Murder” makes an interesting observation tha“there were social climbers — first generation in shoes, who entered their decrepit horses too, in order to rub shoulders with the big shot race horse owners. There were many nobodies who were struggling to become somebodies. That was the Ceylonese society of that era. All the kalusuddas, the so-called high society members who loved to ape the West, flocked in their numbers in top hats and tail coats, and the women in their finest regalia were on parade. They wanted social recognition more than the love of racing. The less affluent were confined to what was popularly known as the Gandhi Enclosure.”

Commenting on the Reversal of Fifty Six Policies,  S. Akurugoda says that one of the very first acts of the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike led MEP was to ban horse racing as gambling was not considered in line with the country’s culture. This ban, Jayantha Gunasekera says came as a relief to many a poor housewife.

This sport tracing back to Central Asian nomadic tribesmen, was introduced to Sri Lanka in the mid 19th century by John Baker, brother of British game hunter Samuel Baker, notorious for slaughtering countless elephants in our country  and said to have once killed 11 elephants one morning before breakfast  and another within three days, for reward.

Undercover investigations by PETAand Animals Australia expose the horrendous abuse in horse racing – horses are forced to run, often under the threat of whips and electric-shocking device’s, so fast, causing Injuries and hemorrhage from the lungs; many are drugged to enhance performance; discarded when of no use to owners who have only a financial interest in the animal;administering liquid nitrogen on legs to increase the blood flow, thereby causing deep wounds; giving Lasix to induce weight loss to make the animal run faster mental suffering due to isolation during training where with the lack of social stimulation, the animal resorts to stereotype behaviours, like biting fences or even self-mutilation; a high concentrate diet rather than extended grazing causing gastric ulcers; dislocated joints; fractured bones,forced mating and over-breeding compelling even the destruction of excess animals; ‘jumps racing’ which is far more dangerous than flat racing, with horses forced to gallop at high speed, clearing obstacles,ending up with grievous injuries;broken limbs and exorbitant veterinary costs forcingsome owners to sell the animal, even to a slaughterhouse to produce dog food or for human consumption in countries where horse meat is relished.

Mercifully, we have no culture of consuming horse meat, but we do hear of dog meat being sold as game. So anything is possible for unscrupulous people to earn a fast buck, in this country, hailed as a great Buddhist Nation.

Former Sports Minister Navin Dissanayake has stated that four horses participating  in the 2015 Nuwara Eliya races had died of steroid overdoses, further commenting that the same group that conducted the races that year amidst many malpractices had been allowed to hold the races in 2016 as well.  A request by a group of animal rights advocates to current Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera to inquire into these deaths remains dormant.

Those using animals for various purposes, including horses for racing, claim that they have welfare measures to protect the animals– but we see elephants used for pageants lying grievously injured, even in temple premises,due to heavy chaining and cart bulls mercilessly beaten during thirikkal races. But lacking, is an independent monitoring mechanism, to hold the claimants accountable for  apathy.

Some claim horse racing is a tradition and a culture – the lamest excuse when no plausible argument can be offered.Even so, should traditions and cultures that become unacceptable, deplorable and obnoxious with changing times and values be perpetuated ?

Perhaps, those engaged in horse racing for pleasure, monetary gain or prestige should read (or re-read) Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic Black Beauty written, as the author said, “to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses”. The public outrage caused by its narration of horses suffering through human use, prompted legislative reforms in England, including a ban on the torturous ‘bearing rein.’

Sri Lanka does not have enough animal protection laws.The long outstanding Animal Welfare Bill is not galloping, but limping to Parliament.  But we do have more than enough animal abuse.  Do we need more?

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