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USU slammed for ‘selling out’ to major horse racing event

Animal welfare and gambling reform advocates have confronted the Student Union

The University of Sydney Union logo but the S has been replaced by a dollar sign

A controversial financial arrangement between the University of Sydney Union (USU) and a ‘pinnacle event in the Australian racing calendar’ has upset animal welfare and gambling reform advocates who have urged the USU to cancel its promotions days before the event was scheduled to take place.

The USU has teamed up with the Australian Turf Club’s Everest Carnival, a six-week horse racing event to be held in Sydney this month. Under its side of the bargain, the USU dished out sponsored promotions of the race on social media and in emails to students.

“There’s no dilemma over what to do on Saturday, 19th October 2019! Get to Everest at Royal Randwick,” read a sponsored post published on the USU’s Facebook.

Students have been asked to join “the $14 million The Everest where the best of Sydney’s hospitality, entertainment and sport come together,” according to emails seen by Honi. 

But the largest animal rights organisation in the world, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as well as local activists from the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorse have railed against the USU’s decision, alongside the Alliance for Gambling Reform.

PETA Spokeswoman, Emily Rice, said the USU should not have given the Everest unfiltered and unchallenged access to the student market.

“The industry is one built on animal abuse, problem gambling and excessive drinking, and none of those things should be promoted to Australian youth.”

“There’s very little that’s ethical about the targeting of young Australians which appears to be a desperate move by the racing industry,” said Rice.

Widely seen as the New South Wales answer to the Melbourne Cup, the Everest fell into controversy in 2018 when organisers successfully lobbied the Berejilkian Liberal Government to light up the Opera House’s sails with the Everest logo, a move opposed by Opera House CEO Louise Herron who said the Opera House was “not a billboard.”

In a combative radio interview last year, Carnival-backer Alan Jones called for Herron’s sacking, though Jones later apologised for his comments after a petition supporting Herron’s position received more than 300,000 signatures.

The Everest boasts the highest prize purse in Australia and is specifically positioned towards a younger market.

More than half the total pre-sold tickets in its inaugural race in 2017 were snagged by people under the age of 30.

“We need to entice younger people to come to the races because there is so much competition for the gambling, entertainment and leisure dollar,” V’landys said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

The USU, which boasts of its ability to connect advertisers with “52,000 students at Australia’s most switched on campus,” is the perfect audience for the Everest Carnival.

In its 2019 Deathwatch Report, the Melbourne-based Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses estimated a total of 122 horses died from race-related injuries between August 2018 and July 2019, according to data obtained from stewards reports across each state and territory.

The Coalition also reports that 45% of horses forcibly bred into the industry never make it to the racetrack.

Spokeswoman Kristin Leigh said it was disappointing to learn that the USU was selling out to an animal abuse and gambling industry.

“We believe it is the responsibility of student-led boards to support and encourage ethical behaviour,” Leigh told Honi. 

“Acting as the advertising agent for an animal abuse and gambling industry goes entirely against that responsibility.” 

The arrangement has also seen the USU face backlash from groups like the Alliance for Gambling Reform, an initiative publicly funded by several local governments — including the City of Melbourne — which seeks to prevent and minimise the harms of the gambling industry.

Kate de Costa, a NSW Campaigner for the Alliance, said no responsible and ethical organisation should be taking money from gambling interests.

“It’s disappointing news that the Union has entered into this arrangement, but we imagine the decision makers have been deceived, as so many people are, by the industry-based responsible gambling rhetoric, and the constant assertion that gambling is legal and harmless.”

Back in 2017, the USU under President Courtney Thompson, sent emails to all ACCESS members promoting the TAB Everest Race Day. 

Earlier this year, St Andrews College students promoted a major greyhound racing night at Wentworth Park.

When approached for comment, USU President Connor Wherrett declined to provide Honi a copy of the USU’s Sponsorship and Advertising Policy which is set to undergo a review later this year.

Wherrett did not confirm whether student board directors were responsible for approving the commercial agreement with Everest, citing a policy in which the USU Board can delegate decisions to other staff in the organisation.

“Sponsorship and advertising provide income that allows the USU to facilitate its many activities, programs and events,” said Wherrett.

The USU’s promotions of the Everest Carnival will continue until race day.