Warning: Distressing photos
Organisers of the annual Tolaga Bay beach races deny accusations two horses shot after incidents at last year's event were treated inhumanely and that the beach was not safe to race on.
Anti Rodeo Action NZ, after being contacted by a member of the public, has criticised organisers of the races held on a stretch of Kaiaua Beach on December 28.
Two horses were euthanised by gun and dragged to the end of the beach and left on the sand until the races were over.
Races-attending veterinarian Bob Jackman said one of the horses died from an internal injury — possibly a heart attack although no autopsy was done — while the other horse tripped and broke its two front legs.
After the crowd had dispersed at the end of the event, the horses were taken to a nearby farm and buried.
A member of the public took photos of the horses with seawater washing over them and sent the shots to Anti Rodeo Action NZ.
The carcass of a race horse lies in the surf on 28 December 2020 after it was euthanised during the Tolaga Bay races. Photo / Supplied
The person told the group the injuries were caused by soft sand.
Anti Rodeo Action NZ spokeswoman Lynn Charlton said that was unacceptable.
"It is surprising that with so many experienced stewards, race organisers, horse wranglers and veterinarians present for the races that no one considered the state of the soft sand," she said.
Event organisers deny this, saying the accusations were without facts, were "incorrect and uninformed", and that no one from Anti Rodeo Action NZ was there on the day.
"The races are intentionally held at low tide to avoid issues with soft sand," said races chairman Chris Ovenden.
"The entire beach area where the horses run is inspected by the head steward before and after every race."
Kaiaua Beach was used for the races because it had a wide, flat plain and consistently hard sand in the inter-tidal zone where the horses run, he said.
The carcass of a race horse is dragged from the beach after it was euthanised during the Tolaga Bay races. Photo / Supplied
Jackman said minimising animal suffering on the day was their main concern.
"Events like these are very uncommon, with only one other instance having occurred in the 35 years of my attendance.
"These sort of accidents do happen occasionally on any farm with horses and euthanising them promptly is standard practice."
Because of their size, horses were not often able to recover from major fractures.
Concerns were also raised about the photos by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, who said in a statement that the "shocking" events took place "whilst families cheered and betted on their lives".
In a statement, spokeswoman Frances Baker said: "After being shot in the head, those horses were not given the dignity they deserve and were left dumped on the beach without cover very close to the shore".
Baker told the Herald: "Lots of injuries and deaths do occur and the industry will try and sell you the facade of glamour but what is actually happening behind the scenes is a shocking reality."
"They've [organisers] stated that it was quite distressing for them as well, but the fact that they left the horses on the shore to sit there without any dignity, without cover, and I understand nothing was done until someone complained, it's not acceptable. Any death of a horse is not acceptable. There's not an excuse to say it's the first time it's happened in 35 years."
The carcass of a race horse lies in the surf after it was euthanised during the Tolaga Bay races. Photo / Supplied
Anti Rodeo Action NZ made their concerns known to New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR), who while not associated with the races, were involved in the issuing of a betting licence for the event.
In reply to the group, NZTR legal, compliance and regulatory general manager James Dunne said the allegations were troubling and "would seem to fall well below NZTR's expectations".
Asked by The Gisborne Herald for clarification, Dunne said the group expected any horse that died on the track would be treated with courtesy and respect.
In relation to the Tolaga Bay beach races, he said NZTR expected a cover to have been placed over the horses and that they would not be left within the range of the tide for water to lap against their bodies.
Dunne pointed out New Zealand was one of the safest places in the world for horse racing.
"If there is any guidance we can give, that's something we'd look at doing."
- text by Jack Marshall, Gisborne Herald. Additional reporting, NZ Herald