Racing in Ireland has been shaken in recent days with the release of an image over the weekend, followed by video footage on Tuesday.
Normally the sight of a man astride a horse would not cause any controversy except this time the man happens to be one of Europe’s top National Hunt trainers and the horse he is astride is lying dead on the ground, while today’s video footage shows an Irish amateur jockey on a dead mare as she also lies on the gallops.
Three-time Aintree Grand National-winning handler Gordon Elliott was photographed sitting on a dead horse called Morgan, a four-time winning son of Big Bad Bob, while on his mobile phone making a victory gesture. The image has sent shock waves through racing in Ireland and throughout Europe with the body tasked with protecting the integrity and reputation of Irish horseracing, the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Board (IHRB), initiating an inquiry.
Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the national authority for thoroughbred racing in Ireland, with responsibility for governance, development and promotion of the sport issued a statement on Monday afternoon, which read:
“Horse Racing Ireland unreservedly condemns the disturbing photograph that appeared on social media at the weekend. This image does not reflect the care, attention and respect that racehorses receive, and does a disservice to the thousands of people who look after their horses on a daily basis. Horse Racing Ireland notes and supports the IHRB investigation into the circumstances around the photograph.
“From a disciplinary perspective, the matter is in process, so any further comment on the matter or the detail of the case at this time would not be appropriate.”
Forty-three year Gordon Elliott, who trains at Cullentra House Stables in County Meath, has trained more jumps winners in Ireland so far this season than anyone else, and is currently 17 winners ahead of the 13-time Irish champion National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins. It was the Aintree Grand National which first brought Elliott’s name to wider prominence when, in 2007, at the age of 29, he became the youngest trainer to win the race, with Silver Birch, in just his second season with a training licence.
British Horseracing Authority bans Elliott
The weekend’s photograph lead to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) echoing its Irish counterpart with a statement early on Monday which said it was “appalled by the image that appeared this weekend.”
Elliott, who has a number of highly-fancied horses for the upcoming Cheltenham Festival in England, seen by jumps fans as the sport’s premier festival, was dealt a major blow late last evening when the BHA announced a ban on Elliott having runners in Britain as an “interim decision” pending the outcome of the IHRB investigation.
The BHA statement read: “The BHA, which regulates racing in Britain, will use powers under its own rules to refuse to allow horses trained by Mr Elliott to race in Britain pending consideration of the outcome of the Irish investigation. The action taken by the BHA recognises that Mr Elliott is licensed in Ireland, whose regulatory body, the IHRB, is carrying out its own investigation. However, Mr Elliott has entered horses to race in Britain, from which point the British rules of racing apply to him.”
Cheveley Park Stud in England which owns a number of Elliott’s top horses, including Envoi Allen and Quilixios, as well as the Cheltenham Champion Bumper second-favourite Sir Gerhard, expressed its disgust on Monday at the image stating:
“We are truly horrified and dismayed by the photograph doing the rounds on social media, however, we will await the official outcome of the investigation by the IHRB, which we trust will be swift, before making any further comment/decisions.”
The stud farm on Tuesday decided not to await the result of the IHRB investigation, with Cheveley Park Stud’s director Richard Thompson instead announcing that its eight top-class horses would leave Elliott and be shared between his two biggest rivals Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead.
Gigginstown House Stud stands by top handler
Elliott is arguably most famous for being the trainer of the legendary dual Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll. His and the dead horse’s owner Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown House Stud, pledged to stand by Elliott, with whom he has had a successful 15-year partnership. The Gigginstown House Stud statement read as follows:
“Eddie (Michael O’Leary’s brother and racing manager) and I were deeply disappointed by the unacceptable photo which appeared on social media over the weekend. The care and welfare of all our animals comes first with all our trainers. Sadly, from time to time, our horses suffer injuries and/or fatalities and we expect all such cases to be treated with the care and attention they deserve.”
O’Leary continued, “We have always found that animal welfare comes first, second and third at Cullentra. From the facilities, to the brilliant team of people led by Gordon, our horses are trained with no expense spared for their development, welfare and care.
“We all make mistakes, and what is important is that we learn from them and ensure we do not repeat them. We accept Gordon’s sincere, profound and unreserved apology and we will continue to support him and his team at Cullentra, as they work to recover from this deeply regrettable incident.”
The shocking photograph has immediately affected Elliott from a commercial perspective, with Betfair announcing early on Monday morning that they would discontinue their association with the trainer, adding:
“While we recognise that Gordon deeply regrets and apologised unreservedly for his poor judgement his actions are completely at odds with the values of the Betfair brand and that of our employees. With that in mind, we have decided to discontinue our association with Gordon with immediate effect.”
Condemnation from inside and outside Irish racing industry
The Irish Racehorse Trainers Association (IRTA) issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon through its Chief Executive Michael Grassick, which said:
“The IRTA utterly condemns the image that emerged over the weekend. As one of our most prominent and successful members, Gordon has a duty of care to his horses and this great sport but he has let down both himself and horse racing. However, we acknowledge his apology and recognise what is a very difficult time for him both professionally and personally.”
Prominent figures from both inside and outside the Irish horseracing industry have expressed their anger and disappointment with Elliott’s actions. Former Irish champion jumps jockey and the Cheltenham Festival’s most successful ever rider Ruby Walsh said Elliott’s actions were “indefensible”, adding “a picture paints a thousand words but I think that picture only painted one and that’s indefensible. When I looked at it, I felt angry, I felt embarrassed for my sport and I felt very sad.”
Ireland’s Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers has said that Elliott must be “held fully accountable for his actions”, adding that he was “shocked, appalled and horrified” by the image of the trainer sitting on the body of the gelding Morgan in 2019, calling it “really disturbing from an animal welfare perspective”.
“I came from nothing and built a dream”
Gordon Elliott has spoken about an “indefensible moment of madness” as he responded to the condemnation of the now infamous image.
Speaking to the Racing Post newspaper, Elliot said that when he became aware the image was circulating, he “instantly realised the magnitude of the situation”.
The County Meath trainer accepts that he has let down the racing industry, his owners and his staff.
“It is indefensible. Whether alive or dead, the horse was entitled to dignity. A moment of madness that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life paying for and that my staff are suffering for.
“I will be punished, I fully understand that. But it absolutely breaks my heart to read and hear people say that I have no respect for my horses. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My whole life has revolved around horses since I was a child. I know nothing else. Horses are all I have. I came from nothing and built a dream.
“When your world starts crumbling in front of you, it’s a scary place to be. I just hope people can understand how truly sorry I am and find some way to forgive me for what I have done.
“My heart goes out to all my staff. I know how hard they work. I know that I have not only let them down but that I have let the whole racing industry down too. That is down to my stupidity and I am truly, truly sorry.”
Amateur jockey in video shame
A video which circulated on social media in the past 24 hours of Irish amateur jockey Rob James mounting a dead mare has brought further embarrassment to the sport. The County Wexford rider has this evening apologised for his “stupidity”.
In a statement released in the past few hours, James, who rode trainer Gordon Elliott’s Milan Native to victory at the Cheltenham Festival in 2020, said:
“I would just like to apologise for my actions which were wholly inappropriate and disrespectful to a lovely five-year-old mare, who unfortunately suffered a sudden cardiac arrest while at exercise earlier that morning, April 30th, 2016.
“I sincerely apologise to the owners of the mare, the staff who cared for her, the horseracing industry and all followers of horse racing for my actions.
“To try defending my stupidity at the time would add further insult and hurt to the many loyal people that have supported me during my career. I have caused embarrassment to my employers, my family and most importantly the sport I love.”
Gordon Elliott faces IHRB hearing on Friday
Gordon Elliott will face an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board hearing on Friday in relation to the controversial photograph which emerged in recent days. The IRHB have moved to convene the hearing of their referrals committee for the end of this week but it is not yet clear when a decision will be announced.
Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud have communicated their intention to attend the hearing alongside Elliott, who may see his licence to train suspended or even revoked.
The IHRB is yet to make a formal announcement about jockey Rob James, but has confirmed that an investigation into that matter is now underway.
Breandán Ó hUallacháin, Contributor
Photo: Gordon Elliot