Skip to main content

Horse Racing: Is This the World's Most Dangerous Sport? The Melbourne Cup

John was born and raised in Australia. Subsequently, he is interested in all things Australian: language, sport and culture.

The Sport of Kings

Horse racing, often called "The Sport Of Kings" has probably the most glamorous image of all so-called animal 'sports'. Such is the allure of horse racing that major race days such as the Melbourne Cup are even 'celebrated' with public holidays.

Socialites spend thousands of dollars on designer outfits, outrageous hats, and the opportunity to mingle with other famous names. Millions of dollars are gambled on the outcome of races without any thought to how dangerous the sport really is for both horse and jockey.

Fiorente defeats Red Cadeaux and Mount Athos to win the 2013 Melbourne Cup.

Fiorente defeats Red Cadeaux and Mount Athos to win the 2013 Melbourne Cup.

The Melbourne Cup ("The Race that Stops A Nation")

With the 2013 Melbourne Cup having just been run and won by the gallant 6 year old stallion and favorite Fiorente, under a masterful ride by jockey Damien Oliver, and skillfully trained by Gay Waterhouse (now the first woman to train a Melbourne Cup winner), the stage was set for the presentation ceremony. However a much darker and sadder event was taking place at that very moment, and being virtually ignored by the media. Only those who had been watching the race closely would have noticed one of the horses near the tail of the field suddenly be pulled up approaching the 2000 metre mark.

As the much coveted cup was being presented, speeches given, and congratulations made to and by the winning owners, trainer, and jockey, the ominous green screens were being placed around the stricken horse .The name 'Verema' was already trending on Twitter and Facebook as those concerned enquired about the horses condition. Unfortunately Verema had fractured its cannon bone and was euthanised as thousands cheered the cup presentation.

Christophe Lemaire riding Verema towards the starting stalls.

Christophe Lemaire riding Verema towards the starting stalls.


Verema was a 5 year old French mare, owned and bred by His Highness Aga Khan of Jordan and trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre who also trained the winners of this race in 2010 and 2011, Americain and Dunaden.

The Melbourne Cup has become the best staying handicap in the world and Verema had been prepared to run the two miles. Of her past nine runs, eight had been at 3000m or above and she had hit form at the right time, winning her past two.

Verema was third in the Gold Cup over 3200 metres in Dubai. Then in her most recent outings in France she won the group 2 Prix De Nieuil at Longchamp 2800m before winning the Prix Kergorlay at Deauville over 2800m.

Her trainer stated the day before the Melbourne Cup, "She's tough and mature and ready for this race. We have got here with the right weight, which is also important. She really reminds me of Dunaden. In some ways they both have that acceleration at the end of races."

Dulcify winning the AJC Derby on protest in 1979.

Dulcify winning the AJC Derby on protest in 1979.

Melbourne Cup Fatalities?

Even though I have always been a fan of horse racing, this tragic event got me thinking. I could remember two other fatalities happening to Melbourne Cup runners in the time I have been following the race:

In 1979 Melbourne Cup favourite Dulcify was put down after breaking its pelvis during the race.

Then in 1998 the Singapore-trained horse Three Crowns was put down after shattering a leg in the Melbourne Cup of that year. Three Crowns had lead the field for most of the race but broke down and was swamped by the pack in the final stages.

I decided to try to research all Melbourne Cup deaths since the very first running of the race. Well the significant word here is 'try', I couldn't find a list anywhere of Melbourne Cup fatalities. Oh there are an abundance of facts and statistics concerning Australia's richest and most famous race. Everything it seems other than what I was looking for.

For instance:

  • The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861 during the Victorian gold rush. many successful gold-diggers who had become rich, enjoyed wagering some of their new found wealth on the race at Flemington. It was won by Archer, who was also successful the following year.
  • There have been six grey winners
  • There have been five multiple winners
  • Most wins by one trainer is 12: Bart Cummings
  • Youngest winning jockey: Peter St Albans on briseis in 1876. He was just 12 years, 11 months, 23 days old.
  • Biggest winning margin: 8 lengths, by Archer in 1862, and Rain lover in 1968.
  • Stallions have won the most cups at 65, followed by geldings 50, Colts 21, mares 13, and Fillies 3.

The list goes on, but no mention of the number of fatalities, either of horse or jockey.

Australian Jockey Deaths per Decade

These are only deaths resulting from accidents on the track or in training.

decade total

Scroll to Continue

1840 - 1849 1

1850 - 1859 1

1860 - 1869 0

1870 - 1879 3

1880 - 1889 17

1890 - 1899 32

1900 - 1909 25

1910 - 1919 21

1920 - 1929 32

1930 - 1939 50

1940 - 1949 28

1950 - 1959 29

1960 - 1969 16

1970 - 1979 10

1980 - 1989 17

1990 - 1999 12

2000 - 2009 9

2010 - 2013 1

Fatal Statistics.

When I had no luck finding stats on Melbourne Cup fatalities, I decided to expand my search.

The only record of death of Australian based horses that I could find was 'Australia's Fallen Racehorses- In Honour Of The Fallen'. This site however only gives statistics from 2008 to 2010 the results of which are as follows:

  • 2010 - 83 deaths
  • 2009 - 133 deaths
  • 2008 - 586 deaths

From these figures at least, it appears that the number of fatalities is falling substantially each year.

I then wondered what percentage of these deaths may have resulted from accidents sustained during jumps racing (hurdles and steeplechases) because this form of racing is the most dangerous of all. I found that in Australia, only two states still allow jumps racing, Victoria and South Australia. In this form of racing, every year horses fall, sustain horrible injuries and are killed in a 'sport' these governments deem as acceptable in the name of 'spectacular' entertainment.

Apart from the numbers listed below, many other horses are injured on the training tracks or lack the ability to win races. These horses are rarely retired to the spelling yard or stud, instead being sent to the abattoir or knackery. In the corresponding years to those above, this was the number of 'jumps' related deaths:

  • 2010 - 5
  • 2009 - 13
  • 2008 - 15

Once again the number is decreasing, with the current year 2013 having only four fatalities. This only accounts for a small number of the overall deaths, but it must be pointed out that there are far less jumps races held in Australia than flat races.

Although mainly concerned with Australian statistics, on digging further I found a Horse Racing Death Register on Betfair which shows a total of 668 race horses having died (other than natural causes) in the UK and Ireland, since January 2011. Of these 544 actually died on the track during races, but without going through each case individually I don't know how many of these were jumps related.


To put in context why the organizers and sponsors, Victoria Racing Club, the Victorian and Australian Governments may not want to tarnish the reputation of Australia's greatest race by publicly making available statistics of Melbourne Cup related deaths one may have to look at the amount of tourism and local dollars it attracts.

Then there is the huge entry fees paid by owners to actually nominate horses for the race, of which only 24 are finally accepted to start. To give you some idea of just how much the Melbourne Cup must generate each year, let's look at a breakdown of the prize money for this years race 2013.

With assistance from the Emirates Airlines (major sponsor), and others, the Melbourne Cup of 2013 offered winning prize money totaling $6 million AUD plus $175,000 in trophies.

This maintains the Melbourne Cup’s status as the world’s richest handicap race, and the single richest held on turf.

To help appreciate the economics of winning the Melbourne Cup only two races in the world currently offer more prize money, the Dubai World Cup ($10,000,000 US)on a synthetic track, and the Japan Cup ($6,700,000 US)on grass.

2013 Prize Money
First:$3,600,000, Second:$900,000, Third:$450,000, Fourth:$250,000,Fifth:$175,000, Sixth:$125,000, Seventh:$125,000, Eighth:$125,000, Ninth:$125,000, Tenth:$125,000

A distressed Admire Rakti finishes last. Picture: AFP

A distressed Admire Rakti finishes last. Picture: AFP

Update: 2014 Melbourne Cup:Tragedy Strikes Again

The 2014 Melbourne Cup was run on Tuesday 4th November. Once again tragedy strikes. After brilliantly winning the major lead up race 'The Caulfield Cup" two weeks ago champion Japanese stayer Admire Rakti (and already winner of over $5 million) was sent out popular favourite for the Melbourne Cup.

After running in second place on a hot pace for the first half of the race Admire Rakti began to slowly drop out and at the finish line came in last. Soon after being taken back to the stalls the favourite collapsed and died. An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death.

To add further to the tragic events of the 2014 Cup Araldo which finished seventh, was spooked by a child waving an Australian flag while being led away after the race, lashing out and kicking a running rail and fracturing his leg. Araldo had been purchased from Germany for $500,000. Ironically this years dominant winner Protectionist is German owned and trained.

The wonderful victory by a talented horse was unfortunately overshadowed by these other sad events. Nine year old Red Cadeaux was gallant in defeat, running second in the cup for the third consecutive year.

"I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world."

— Michelle Payne (after her win in the Melbourne Cup)

Michelle Payne on Prince of Penzance waves to the crowd after winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup.

Michelle Payne on Prince of Penzance waves to the crowd after winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup.

Update:2015 Melbourne Cup

The 2015 Melbourne Cup was a fairytale story. The winner Prince of Penzance (trained by Darren Weir) started at odds of 100-1 (I backed it!) and was ridden by Michelle Payne, only the 4th female jockey to ever ride in the race and the first to win it in its 155 year history and was coincidentally wearing the colours of the suffragette movement ( purple, green and white). A well as that Stevie Payne (Michelle's youngest brother) was the horse's strapper and has Downs Syndrome. Stevie also drew the number one barrier position for the horse.

Michelle is the youngest child of ten, and eight of her siblings became jockeys. Their mother Mary was killed in a car accident when Michelle was only six months old and all children had to be raised by their father Paddy who was a jockey and trainer, aided by his eldest daughter Bridget who was then 16. Michelle dreamt of being a winning jockey as a child, and at aged seven, told friends she would one day win the Melbourne Cup.

Michelle has experienced some trying moments in her career, suffering a near-fatal fall in 2004 that caused her to fracture her skull and have bruising on the brain. Her father Paddy encouraged her to give up racing after that but Michelle kept riding. Then another tragedy struck the Payne family when sister Bridget suffered a heart attack six months after a fall left her in an induced coma.

Since then Michelle has taken some dangerous falls including one in which she suffered broken ribs and fractures to four vertebrae but has always made it back on the horse.

Stevie and Michelle Payne

Stevie and Michelle Payne

Red Cadeaux

Aside from this fairytale win there was another tragedy in the 2015 Cup. Three times second placegetter, the now 10 year old Red Cadeaux from Great Britain, broke down and failed to finish the race. Fortunately he didn't face the same sad fate as previous horses that have broken down in the race. His leg was operated on and his life saved. He has now of course been retired to the "Living Legends" retirement facility near Melbourne, Australia


I have not given up on trying to find factual statistics on Melbourne Cup related deaths, and if I succeed will add those statistics to this hub. But despite this, I feel that the above figures reveal that indeed the horse racing industry/sport can be classified as one of the most dangerous sports that we, both human and animal, engage in. Do you agree? (If any one has statistics to prove there are more deaths in another mainstream sport I would love to hear about it. Just include the details in your comments, thanks).

Other Hubs On Horse Racing.

  • Winning Ways
    Some very simple tips for the social punter. Taking the science out of betting, and treating it all as just a numbers game. Toss out the form guides and give these suggestions a try for a few months.

© 2013 John Hansen


John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on December 21, 2017:

Thanks, hartense for your comment, cheers.

hartense from United Kingdom on December 21, 2017:

That is true in verity but my pocket reminds me of it every day especially when a double is broken

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on June 05, 2017:

Ah, thank you, John, for that information. Now I see why so many people object to Greyhound racing! It sounds like a horrendous "sport?"!!!

Horse racing has its dark side, also, though, as many Thoroughbreds who don't win races are given up on and sent to slaughterhouses. Even though America shutdown its existing slaughterhouses, bordering countries accept American horses for slaughter.

On the bright side, many caring people help rescue retired Greyhounds and retrain retired Thoroughbreds for other jobs.

Sport and animals will always spark controversy...

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on June 04, 2017:

Barb the participating numbers of greyhounds would not be as large, but the casualties are great because most under-performing and retired dogs are destroyed as well as all the rabbits, cats, chickens and various creatures illegally used for baiting. The racing itself is not dangerous as such.

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on June 04, 2017:

I had thoughts about Greyhound racing, as well, John, but I wasn't certain of the number of dogs involved because I don't follow that and I don't know where the tracks are, etc.

From your remarks, I gather that sport has gone awry, too! Are the participation numbers (of dogs) as great as those of football and horse racing?

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on June 04, 2017:

Thanks for the insightful comment, Barb. You are right that football results in a lot of injuries and long term brain injury, even deaths. Boxing also, and then you have extreme sports like mountain climbing, hang gliding etc etc. it would be interesting to see a statistical comparison of all sport. As we agree though humans choose to take the risk, horses don't and we have had a lot more jockey fatalities in this country recently. I think the sport that would result in the most deaths though would actually be greyhound racing. There has been a huge enquiry here, many trainers banned and even shut down in one state.

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on June 04, 2017:

John, I believe there are other dangerous sports, like American football, that add to these grim stats. However, comparison of the most dangerous sports would involve percentages. How many football players, how many race horses, participated in a given period, and how many met fatal, or injurious, ends, etc.

Football has come under fire more and more as former players are claiming resulting head trauma injuries.

Certainly, your stats for horse racing alone being a dangerous occupation for the horse are compelling. Riders, too, of course, are at risk. And your observation in answer to FlourishAnyway is very applicable, here -- humans take the risk, horses have no choice.

Although the fatalities for horses which you have quoted are sadly astounding, I believe every person who ever took a "hit" in football is at risk for resulting injury. The flow of this vicious contact sport also results in over drug use to treat ills and injuries. More danger follows that fact. The same goes for boxing, etc.

I believe football is the most dangerous sport of all, although boxing may have a large enough participation percentage to qualify along with it.

Will I stop watching? No. Just as you said you won't stop watching horse racing. I won't either.

What can be done to cut down on sports risk and injury? Where dollars rule, risks will remain.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 09, 2015:

Oh! I agree, Jodah - horse racing should not be looked upon as something to avoid. Knowing about the failures can help implement better safeguards. It has been a well-loved sport for ages. Just like any sports events there are casualties and fatalities - this should not make us feel guilty for enjoying the sport. I love to watch the races and get really excited during the Kentucky Derby.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 09, 2015:

Hi Phyllis, this was probably the hub I have devoted the most research to. Thank you for appreciating it. It may also be a bit hypocritical to write this article when I actually enjoy horse racing and having the occasional punt. I do feel however, that we can highlight the dangers and failings of a sport but still appreciate it. Only by spotlighting the dangers and failings can we ever hope to make it safer.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 09, 2015:

A lot of research and determination went into this article and you have done a great job of it, Jodah. It is so sad and grim as to what goes on behind the scenes and is hushed up. I have always loved horses and admired the race horses for their beauty and speed - I have also always observed how very dangerous horse racing is. It takes just one second for something to trigger a fatal fall that ends a life.

Thanks for all the hard work you put into this hub and shared, Jodah.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 09, 2015:

Thank you whonu. It is an animal rights issue and also a danger in regards to jockeys but their is so much money involved I doubt anything will ever change.

whonunuwho from United States on November 09, 2015:

I've always feared for the horses more, and have wondered how many bad experiences were covered up. Thank you for bringing this to our attention my friend. whonu

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 09, 2015:

Thanks for commenting Peter. Yes I only took the fixed odds too because I placed my bet before race day, still got $115 return. I think you may be right about Red Cadeaux's leg, they may have just placed it in a cast but at least he wasn't put down.

Peter from Australia on November 09, 2015:

John, Great article about the Melbourne Cup and I enjoyed reading the updates as well! This years Melbourne Cup was , as you have written above, was brilliantly won by Prince of Penzance and I also backed it but unluckily for me I only got the tote odds :(

I also think that the Vets decided not to operate on Red Cadeaux but instead placed his leg in a Cast.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on April 15, 2015:

Kristen the autopsy showed that the horse suffered a heart attack. The Melbourne Cup is an extremely challenging race over two miles. Even though there are longer races most of the European races especially have less starters. The Melbourne Cup almost always has 24 which increases the pressure on horses and also chances of interference during the race. Many of the overseas horses are not used to this. Thank you for reading and for the vote up.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 15, 2015:

Jon, this was a powerful hub about the dangerous risks of horse racing in any country. So sad to hear about those poor horses. What did the autopsy say about that horse that collapsed? I love to watch it on TV and root for a winner every spring for the Triple Crown Derby race in USA. I love horses as well. Voted up for interesting.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 09, 2013:

Thanks drbj, yes I think you may be right. I don't know if there is a similar lack of statistics for major races in other parts of the world.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 09, 2013:

Good luck, Jodah, in obtaining the statistics you seek but because of the BIG money involved in horse racing, you may be on a fool's errand.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 06, 2013:

My pleasure to inform teaches1234. Just going out for a casual fun day at the races you don't always stop and think how competitive and dangerous horse racing can be. It's easy to get lost in the atmosphere. thanks for reading and your comment.

Dianna Mendez on November 06, 2013:

I couldn't watch the video, too much drama for this woman to bear. I have been to a couple of races but they were not as intense as ones you mention here. I didn't realize the sport could be so competitive and dangerous. THanks for the information.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 06, 2013:

Yes Flourish, you are so right. Like many things in society, horse racing is fueled by greed and the vast riches on offer for the top echelon. At least the jockeys choose to accept the risks, the horses have no choice.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 06, 2013:

Horses are such beautiful creatures, and I refuse to watch horseracing because of the dangers they are placed in, the greed surrounding the betting, and the concern that I have for what happens to those horses who are not good enough to be deemed winners. My parents used to live in horse country of Kentucky and horses are quite an industry there and in other places. Sad. I'm a former skydiver, and at least I undertook my risks of my own choice. Thanks for describing some of their plight.

John Hansen (author) from Gondwana Land on November 06, 2013:

Yes Bill, They are. Despite the dangers I am still a fan as well. Not going to the track much anymore either, but I have the occasional wager. They are beautiful creatures. It is a pity that if they are injured, especially in regards to broken legs, they can rarely be saved.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2013:

I do love horseracing. I used to go to the track quite often but not so much now. There is no doubt of the danger but oh my, those horses are beautiful in gallop. :)

Related Articles