Melbourne Cup winner Gai Waterhouse hits out at jumps racing move, joins Oakbank Racing Club

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Decorated horse trainer Gai Waterhouse has lashed critics of jumps racing as she pushes to overturn a decision to scrap the controversial practice in South Australia, insisting that horses “love to do it”.

The Melbourne Cup-winning trainer last week became a member of the Oakbank Racing Club, throwing her support behind calls to reinstate the annual Easter carnival’s feature events as steeplechases, rather than flat races.

Earlier this month, Racing SA announced jumps racing would not be part of the state’s racing calendar as of next year, citing declining participation levels and horse numbers.

The Oakbank Easter Racing Carnival, which includes jumps racing, attracted about 25,000 people in 2019, compared to decade ago when crowds topped 100,000.

The event has been accompanied by an increasing number of protesters in recent years, with animal welfare groups calling for jumps racing to be banned, as it is in every state except South Australia and Victoria.

Well-known races at Oakbank, the Great Eastern and the Von Doussa, will continue as flat races, not jumps events. 

But Ms Waterhouse disputed claims that jumps racing was in greater decline than other sectors of the industry, describing the decision to scrap it as a “terrible shame”.

“Jumps racing probably has the healthiest crowds of any race meetings in Australia, and the wonderful thing is that it appeals to the everyday person. It appeals to the everyday Aussie,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“They’ve canned this. They’ve taken the most successful meeting you have in South Australia — it’s no longer there. How sad.”

Ms Waterhouse derided jumps racing’s critics, describing them as a “bunch of do-gooders” who had tarnished the image of steeplechasing.

“It’s had bad publicity of late, but I can tell you horses love to do it, and people love to be involved,” the Sport Australia Hall of Fame member said.

“I love jumps racing and the reason I love it — it gives the horse an afterlife.

“Horses that are racehorses, not all of them are jumpers. But the ones that love to jump, the ones that have been running around paddocks jumping over creeks and doing things like that, they’re horses that love jumps racing.

“The jumps are not very high, they’re very low in Australia for safety reasons. Yes, there are accidents, yes horses do die and people get hurt, but it happens in all sport.”

Racing SA CEO Nick Redin defended the decision to scrap jumps racing for the foreseeable future, saying that statistics had revealed an industry in decline.

“With jumps racing, what we’ve seen over the last few years is a decline in participation to the point last year where we only had three trainers who had jumps horses. One of them had won — that was not competitive,” he said.

“Across the other two trainers there were five horses in South Australia that competed in jumps races.

“The field sizes have declined, and it all comes at a time when racing in SA is going from strength to strength. Our flat racing is growing, the crowds are growing and, despite what people may say, the Easter crowd at Clare has got all the young people who used to go to Oakbank.

“People will return to Oakbank without jumps racing, despite what the jumps people are saying.”

The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses also hit back at Ms Waterhouse’s comments, saying jumps racing had caused countless “horrific” deaths in falls.

“You can’t compare forcing a horse with a jockey on their back who’s got a whip, forcing them over a jump, to frolicking around in a paddock,” spokesperson Kristin Leigh said.

“Why would you insult people for wanting to protect these horses? We’re trying to protect them from blatant abuse, blatant cruelty, suffering on the track, green screens coming up, legs literally hanging by a thread, broken and split.

“Thousands are sent to the slaughterhouse and knackery each year.

“If we’re do-gooders, then let’s be proud do-gooders.”

While Ms Leigh welcomed Racing SA’s decision, she said there was a risk of the industry “back-flipping under pressure” and called for a government-imposed ban.

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