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A Christian response to the Melbourne Cup

Monday, 30 October 2023  | Christine Gobius


I live virtually next door to Flemington Racecourse and relish its river frontage for evening walks. It has little other bearing on my life except for the first Tuesday of November when the relative peace of Kensington Banks is disrupted by helicopters droning back and forth over our rooftops, boats plying up and down the Maribyrnong River and traffic congestion. I have watched the race from the Smithfield Road Bridge, gaining glimpses of the horses as they gallop around into the back straight while encountering the animal welfare protesters on their circuit of the venue.

I am conflicted by this event, as a Kensington resident, as a Melbournian, as a former veterinarian and most importantly as a follower of Jesus who longs for God’s shalom to be revealed in this broken world.

Last Melbourne Cup Day, I visited the Melbourne Museum and was moved again by the magnificence and tragedy of Phar Lap, Australia’s (and New Zealand’s) most famous racehorse, whose taxidermised body is on display. A truly noble animal whose relationship with Tommy Woodcock, his strapper, was one of the most intimate of human-animal bonds. Despite extensive investigations, the cause of Phar Lap’s death remains inconclusive, but it is no surprise that deliberate poisoning was a compelling theory. Phar Lap’s outstanding performance posed a financial threat to the horse racing industry infused at its heart with gambling.

And that brings me to my ambivalence. Horses were created to gallop and gallop fast; their skeleton and musculature are finely tuned. Their fluid movement, speed and freedom are a truly beautiful spectacle.

Horse racing, like many sports, has its roots in ancient history, a celebration of skills and functions performed for everyday life. It is a very natural extension of the deep bond between humans and horses and the enormous contribution horses have made to human thriving until only very recent times: from kids racing their ponies in the back paddock, to local community celebrations where individuals show their skill and celebrate their culture, to war horses carrying soldiers to victory or defeat.

Take Mongolia, where horse racing during the festival of Naadam celebrates a centuries-old culture of horsemanship, one that has been crucial to a nomadic and warrior lifestyle. I have had the privilege of seeing horse and rider galloping across the Mongolian steppe silhouetted against the skyline, a glimpse into an ancient story.

Racing horses takes many forms. The Melbourne Cup, while one of the longest thoroughbred horse races in the world, is really a sprint at 3,200m. Mongolia’s Naadam races are typically 10 to 30 kilometres, while endurance rides (hugely popular in Australia) are long distance races beginning officially at 80km but can be up to 400km. Barrel racing is a rodeo event that requires horse and rider to navigate a short course around barrels in the fastest time. I celebrate the individual and combined skill of horse and rider in each of these events and delight in being a spectator.

If racing horses can be pure joy for horse, rider and spectator, why am I so ambivalent? I began thinking about this question in terms of animal welfare. Horses are injured, as dramatically portrayed in 2018 when the Cliffsofmoher broke down during the Melbourne Cup and was subsequently euthanised. Some horse training practices and the slaughter of horses on retirement from racing are deeply questionable and are being challenged by groups such as the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.

The horseracing industry is strictly regulated. For example, the jockey who was runner-up at last year’s Melbourne Cup was disqualified for the next 15 meets and fined $20,000 for careless riding and endangering the lives of other horses and riders. Three other riders were also suspended for breaching whip rules and for careless riding.

But my ambivalence is not limited to the welfare of the horses. I am concerned more broadly about the welfare of all God’s creation. Observers could conclude that the focus of Melbourne Cup Day is less on the horses and more on the opportunity for partying and gambling. The statistics are striking; $223.8 million was placed in bets on the Cup Race in 2021, while around Australia the excessive consumption of food and alcohol ($27.1 million in 2017), and expenditure on clothing, accommodation and transport, ensures it is truly a day for the consumption of goods and services, ‘generating a windfall for Victoria’ as Premier Dan Andrews’ media release stated in 2018.

Celebrating and enjoying the bounty of this good earth is an important part of what it means to be human, but the excesses of this particular day may go beyond a celebration. I question the ethics surrounding the food that is consumed, the agricultural practices contributing to the destruction of our ecosystems, the toxic manufacturing practices, landfill filled with fashion items that might only be worn once and of course the carbon emissions associated with helicopter, taxi and limousine services and thousands of flights (of humans and horses) undertaken to attend.

So, my ambivalence and what disturbs me most is not racing horses per se but the Horse Racing Industry; that is, the social and economic context of the activity and its subsequent impacts on not just the horses (those that make the race and the many hopefuls that don’t) but the flourishing of all creation, humans and animals.

Here I am drawn back to Genesis: ‘God made … the livestock according to their kinds, … And God saw that it was good’ (Gen 1:24-25). Good for what? I regret to say that for much of my life I have thought ‘good for humans’. I have interpreted the subsequent verses, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’, as relegating all non-human creation as resources for the flourishing of humankind.

Perhaps this is reflective of that fundamental sin of humankind – being self-focused. Yes, we depend on creation to sustain us, but as I read God’s Word I am convinced that creation is part of a much bigger picture – it is for the glory of God. Our mandate to rule over and subdue God’s good creation reflects not the resource and ultimately material orientation that has so characterised the modern era, but a shepherding and nurturing task. This task is integral to what it means both to be made in God’s image and to be part of the interconnectedness of His creation. We neglect this responsibility, I would argue, to the detriment of our own flourishing, of the nonhuman creation and most importantly of our giving glory to God. In the words of philosopher John Ruskin, ‘Wherever money is the principal object of life with either man or nation, it is both got ill, and spent ill; and does harm both in the getting and spending; but when it is not the principal object, it and all other things will be well got, and well spent’.

There is joy and delight in racing horses and celebrating life with all the richness of God’s creation, but I wonder whether the Melbourne Cup, possibly from its inception as one of the richest horse races in the world, has money as the principal object and whether inherent in this is the temptation for this money to be ‘ill got’ and ‘ill spent’. The resulting harm is the compromising of animal welfare and, more generally, the stupendous wastage and degradation of God’s creation.


Christine Gobius served as National Director for Interserve Australia from 2013 to 2021. She has rich vocational experience across veterinary science, human public health and wholistic mission. Her passion for all of God’s creation and human flourishing currently finds expression through work globally with Interserve and locally with Green Collect.


Image credits

Phar Lap Mount by Andrew on Wikimedia Commons, originally posted on Flickr.

2014 Super Saturday at Flemington Racecourse by Chris Phutully on Wikimedia Commons.

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