“ABHORRENT, sick, lack of respect’ ‘tasteless’, ‘disgusting’, ‘offensive’, ‘horrified’, ‘dismayed’ - pick any word you like and you’ll find it repeated many times in the racing coverage over the last four days.
Disgust was widespread in the aftermath of the Gordon Elliott photo that was made public on Saturday and was covered by virtually every news medium.
Racing media united in condemnation of Elliott’s behaviour in the photo of him taking a phone call, happily sitting on the body of a dead horse on his gallops.
The coverage shows no signs of going way and while there are accusitions of trial by media, listening to the various TV and radio coverage, the words are sadly justified. We are no longer in the racing bubble.
Even a few days on, it’s a shocking image to have associated with one of our leading trainers, and also to members of his staff, who were involved in the photograph.
We can never forget that horse racing as a sport operates under an increasingly fragile ‘social licence’ on the basis that no animals are abused in their use for our entertainment. Respect for the animal is always front and centre.
“It threatens the delicate ‘social contract’ under which we endanger the lives of animals for our entertainment.” (posted by JamesFinch)
Here, a horse who had been welcomed into the winner’s enclosure by the same trainer was being mocked in death.
And the V sign was just the last straw. “Hearing a shout from one of my team, I gestured to wait until I was finished,” was the rather feeble explanation.
The act was stupid. Allowing a photograph of it was stupid and the explanation just added to the stupidity of the other two.
He had not just sat down, but sat astride the dead horse to take a phone call. Who would find that acceptable?
For most of us who share our lives with animals, it was unimaginable to think of sitting on a dead body, even in respect of animals that were designed for slaughter and the food chain where you had less sentimental attachment. Generally we’d find it hard to even look at the animal being removed for disposal without a degree of sorrow.
In a more contrite interview in the Racing Post on Monday, Elliott came across in a slightly better light and the enormity of how this act was perceived in the equine world at large seemed to be sinking in. He will pay hard for the ‘moment of madness’.
On Monday night another video of a similar incident found its way on to social media. This one was of Cheltenham winning amateur rider Rob James and again, appearing to make fun of a dead horse.
That both incidents were filmed a few years ago, yet now surface, is unfortunate in that it gives the impression that this casual but hugely offensive behaviour might be more ‘normal’ than we might want to believe.
There are many people who need to take a share of the shame they have brought on our sport and on those who make a living by it.
And at a time when so many in the industry were calling for permission to resume point-to-points because it was their livelihoods and even the suggestion that it might be bordering on a welfare issue not to be able to get the horses moving on as yards were full with young stock.
This incident was filmed, shared and stored by someone so there are many people who need to take a share of the shame they have brought on our sport and on those who work so hard to make a living by it.
How anyone could find amusement in a photograph or film such an incident, given we take photos to share and capture moment of enjoyment, is hard to comprehend.
Elliott’s apology stated: "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.”
James also apologised:” I have caused embarrassment to my employers, my family and most importantly the sport I love. I am heartbroken by the damage I have caused and will do my best to try and make amends to those hurt by my conduct.”
The BHA wasted no time in sanctioning Elliott and, if it did look high handed at the time when announced by a different governing body before any IHRB inquiry had been completed, having the sport so badly portrayed in this country on every news bulletin and newspaper, perhaps justified such action.
The fallout hit Elliott swiftly with the withdrawal of Betfair support and a far from encouraging initial statement from Cheveley Park saw them later also remove their horse to Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins. Gigginstown remain supportive for now.
There are no winners in the desperate affair. The sport is damaged, Elliott accepts his career is ruined. As strong opinions emerged yesterday on social media, you did feel very much for the Cullentra staff, many of whom have been there from the start, to the extent of thinking should we inflict punishment on the whole team because the manager was a d**khead?
Many sportsmen have caused offence in their off the field careers that merited strong punishment – one online posting commented: “He did no harm but the optics are terrible.”
National winners Tiger Roll and Silver Birch at Gordon Elliott's yard
Elliott himself had frequently mentioned how well his staff looked after the horses and were so attentive to keeping them happy.
Those staff who took care of the horses, who turned themselves and their equine charges out impeccably on the racetrack, deserve some of our thoughts. As we lamented the long hard winter from inside, they were out exercising those horses in the dark mornings of wind and rain.
By and large, badly looked after horses do not perform. We’ve seen and read of all the attention that was given to horses like Tiger Roll and Samcro to try and get a happy and fit horse again.
One of Elliott’s head girls, Mary Nugent spoke during the lockdown last year: “We aren’t taking them away to go galloping anymore - we’d often take them to the beach or go hunting which they love.
“Gordon likes to go and vary his horses’ routine - it keeps them free. That’s the most important thing, as you don’t want to do anything to upset their routine, and that’s what we’re here for - to put ourselves out there for them.”
I know for a fact working for Gordon Elliott has been the best decision I’ve ever made. His horses are looked after second to none with us and the horses always come first. Seeing the abuse on social media towards him is vile & is causing so much more damage than anyone realises.
Katie Young leading up Sutton Place
The sport, at a key time of the year when we should be proud and celebrating, has lost so much respect – and after a time when its participants have behaved so well during the long months of lockdown and when so many businesses have been forced to remain closed.
The unfortunate fact is that fatalities occur every week – but the bottom line is we cannot defend the sport to the world, and in a world more removed from the life and death of animals in rural settings, if photos and videos like this are taken and shared with no sanctions.
Elliott and James, and, you hope, those who witnessed the acts, who found amusement in filming them, are also culpable here. All deserve reprimand and the hope must be that they are chastened enough to consider the implications of their actions in the frame of a sport that needs both government and public support.
The few sorry days were best summed up by
Francis-Henri Graffard@Graffard Racing
“Horse are at the very centre of our industry, they provide emotion, entertainment, employment, contribute to the local economy bind communities together.
Without a responsibility to horses, and those who care for them, our industry makes no sense, and those emotions quickly become empty, the entertainment shallow and cruel.”
Our industry is made up of so many good people who have done nothing to deserve the tarnish that has come with this. Think of them, those who are proud of what they do and the industry they work in.