HORSE Racing Ireland’s director of welfare and bloodstock, John Osborne, says HRI will work with the Department of Agriculture to try and “plug the gaps” in the traceability of thoroughbreds.

This week’s RTÉ Investigates report on equine welfare issues dealt with horses of all breeds but Osborne accepts that horseracing will always attract the most attention because of its Department of Agriculture funding.

The documentary presented evidence that significant numbers of Irish-bred thoroughbreds are being exported to continental Europe under false documentation. Some of these are being sold as riding horses to new owners but, according to RTÉ, the majority are being slaughtered at the Shannonside Foods plant in Straffan before entering the food chain. It is alleged that many of these thoroughbreds are not fit for human consumption because of veterinary medicines they have received.

Speaking to The Irish Field yesterday, Osborne said: “In the court of public opinion, a horse is a horse and there is no breed distinction. Likewise, while we might spend ages debating who does what, with an alphabet soup of umbrella bodies, the general public has no time to tease out those subtleties.

“Bad actors doing dreadful things cause immeasurable damage to our premium brand, but we must assume that there will always be a “weakest link” and make sure we have lots of counterbalancing progress.

“Racing’s funding raises the bar of expectation, whether that is fair or not. Some of our critics are anti-racing and some are genuinely concerned to make things better. We engage, appraise and act appropriately.”

Asked what the next steps are for HRI, Osborne said: “There is an obvious role for the Equine Liaison Group of the Department to include all horses in addressing traceability weaknesses.

“The next steps will include a process in which all the relevant stakeholders work together to map all horse movements to identify the best ways to capture data and plug the gaps.

“Horse owners and carers need clear guidance on end-of-life. HRI already strongly supports retraining and rehoming organisations such as Treo Eile. We have a trainers’ seminar on this topic planned for December.

“Most importantly we need to call out wrongdoing and understand that failing to deal robustly with it damages everyone in the long run.”

“Shocked and appalled”

Immediately after RTÉ’s documentary was aired, HRI issued a statement saying it was “deeply shocked and appalled” by the programme’s revelations.

The statement said: “The Board, management and staff of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) are deeply shocked and appalled by the content of the RTÉ Investigates documentary broadcast on RTÉ 1 tonight.

“The criminal behaviour depicted in the RTÉ documentary is disgusting and is not the experience of the vast majority of the 30,000 people who make their livelihood in the horse racing and breeding industry in Ireland.

“HRI has zero tolerance for mistreatment of horses in any circumstance and criminal and regulatory sanction must be imposed on anyone found to have behaved in an illegal way towards horses.

“Equine safety and care is HRI’s top priority, and this year HRI will invest €16.1 million in welfare and integrity services. The thoroughbred horse is enshrined in Irish and EU law. Significant legal and regulatory checks and balances are in place for thoroughbred horses from birth through their racing career and life cycle.

“HRI will review the issues raised in the RTÉ documentary and will actively support any Department of Agriculture or Garda investigation, and urge anyone with information about mistreatment of horses to report it to An Garda Síochána.”

A statement from the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association said: “The ITBA thoroughly supports the statement that HRI has made following the broadcast. The ITBA condemns cruelty of any kind to any animal in the strongest possible terms and were deeply distressed by the coverage shown. The ITBA seek to promote responsible horse ownership and to work together with HRI and other stakeholders to ensure the highest possible standards for our community.”