Protesters to descend on 'celebration of animal abuse' Boxing Day Races

Animal rights activists are gearing up to take on the Kiwi horse racing industry's biggest day, which they're calling "a disgrace and a celebration of animal abuse".

Ellerslie Racecourse on Thursday will host the Boxing Day Races. Organisers say it's "an event where no one misses out on the fun" with "the most colourful fashion, high-octane racing, hospitality and family entertainment". 

But that's not how the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) sees it.

"While people are enjoying bubbles and fashion, there are horses bubbling from their mouth, running for their lives," the group said in a statement. "While people are betting, horses are going through Russian roulette."

There were 17 recorded deaths in the racing industry in the 2018/19 season according to NZ Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR). CPR says true toll is closer to 2500 - a figure NZTR has disputed.

CPR spokesperson Aya Oba said the deaths came through "haemorrhages, cardiac arrest and other injuries caused from being forced to race". 

"There are many more hidden behind the scenes," said Oba. "It is standard practice that when the horses are no longer profitable, many will be sent to the knackery. All of these deaths are for gambling profits and entertainment."

Oba said most people didn't realise how much cruelty there is in the glamorous horse racing industry. 

"Glaming up doesn’t justify supporting animal cruelty. We want people to think twice about attending and supporting racing events. There are other cruelty-free events that you can go to for a good time. It is not a party for the horses."

NZTR told Newshub CPR failed to make a submission when it was updating its welfare guidelines, so couldn't be taken seriously.

NZTR manager of racing and equine welfare Martin Burns told Newshub on Monday New Zealand has one of the lowest horse racing death rates of anywhere in the world.

"We are constantly assessing our tracks and training methods to ensure the risk of fatal injuries is minimised. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world and all accidents are not preventable. When they do happen, they leave a devastating impact on those close to the horse."

Burns said horses "are exhibiting natural behaviour" when they race.

"There must be a willingness to compete from the horse - if that is absent there is nothing a 50kg jockey is going to be able to do to make a 500kg horse gallop."

He said the claim of 2500 deaths a year "seems to be a figure plucked from the air", as only 4800 horses start races in New Zealand each season. Around 3300 are born annually, which about half sent overseas.

"If we were losing 2500 horses annually it would soon be apparent."

Newshub has also contacted organisers Auckland Racing Club for comment.

Protesters will gather at Ellerslie Racecourse from 11am.