RETIRED racehorses who ended their days at an abattoir will feature prominently in the RTÉ Investigates report which will be screened on Wednesday and Thursday evening on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player.

The two programmes are expected to prove damaging to Irish racing as they will show how former winners were sent for slaughter when their racing or breeding value had become negligible, while others deemed not good enough for the track were exported and given new identities before being sold to unsuspecting owners.

According to RTÉ, the investigation “exposes the abuse horses can suffer after they leave the spotlight” and the programme makers predict “viewers will be shocked to see the hidden camera footage in Wednesday night’s documentary capturing evidence of the systematic abuse of horses and activities that threaten the safety of the food chain.”

The RTÉ team analysed data to identify thousands of horses that passed through Ireland’s only licensed horse abattoir. “The majority of the horses were thoroughbred racers, competitors who between them had raced more than 3,000 times, earning their owners more than €1.5 million on tracks across Ireland, the UK and France.”

The programme will also look at how Irish horses are given new identities and traded in deals across Europe. RTÉ says: “The investigation exposed evidence of systemic flaws in the traceability of horses and how this was threatening the human food chain across Europe. The work has already prompted investigations across Europe.”

Three years ago BBC’s Panorama team reported that 4,000 former racehorses were slaughtered in Britain and Ireland between 2019 and 2021.

Although the majority of thoroughbreds slaughtered in Britain each year are Irish-bred, it is thought the vast majority of those had been trained and raced in Britain. It is estimated that half of Britain’s thoroughbred population is Irish.

The Panorama programme prompted Horse Racing Ireland to ask An Garda Síochána and the Department of Agriculture to follow up allegations of apparent microchip fraud and the transport of horses from Ireland to a British abattoir.

Over 8,000 thoroughbred foals are born in Ireland each year. Latest figures from the Department of Agriculture indicate that approximately 1,000 registered thoroughbreds are presented for slaughter in Ireland each year.

In April 2023, five men appeared in Kilkenny District Court accused of deception and fraudulent practices relating to the tampering of identification passports and microchips of horses presented for slaughter.

It is alleged that the five men conspired to defraud Emerald Isle Foods Limited through a scheme to alter the identity of horses contrary to common law. That case has yet to be heard.

Weatherbys defend passport integrity

WEATHERBYS, the passport-issuing authority for thoroughbreds in Ireland, say they are always looking at how to improve the integrity and security of horse passports and reduce the opportunity for criminal and fraudulent behaviour.

Sharon O’Regan, general manager of Weatherbys Ireland, said: “Every thoroughbred foal is parentage tested/blood typed/DNA profiled at registration. This information is held securely and can be used if ever there are any questions regarding a thoroughbred’s identity.”

Weatherbys passports contain a wide range of security features and all Weatherbys-issued microchips are ISO standard and have a unique Weatherbys code that starts with 9851010 or 3721400.

“We issue thoroughbred chips only to registered approved vets and have a chip management system in place,” O’Regan said. “We carry out a detailed vet/chip audit at the end of every foaling season to ensure each chip issued is accounted for.”

She added: “In addition to the traditional printed passport, we have made great strides in the digital space and with the help of technology we introduced the digital equivalent to the paper passport, the Weatherbys ePassport. This was first launched in 2020 and runs alongside the printed passport as the EU requires us to continue to issue the paper passport as the primary identification document.

“We are very hopeful that as we transition to a fully digital ID and ePassport, this will further strengthen security. We are launching a range of new features in 2025 – these will include temperature reading, medical records, weight recording and GPS location.

“At every stage of a horse’s life, we try and ensure its ID and passport information is validated and protected. We are never complacent and, together with stakeholders, we are always looking at how to improve processes.”

British export ban may have consequences for Ireland

A LAW passed just last month in Britain to ban the live export of horses and other livestock for slaughter could prompt dealers to re-route lorryloads of horses bound for the continent via Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill went through the UK parliament in May and was welcomed by equine welfare groups such as World Horse Welfare. However, a prominent veterinary surgeon has warned that British dealers could get around the law by sending slaughter horses to Northern Ireland where they can enter the Republic without checks and then go on to a European destination.

The vet, who asked not to be named, said the Irish government should close the loophole by passing a similar law. He said he suspected there was already lax checks being carried out on horses at Irish ports.

"Since Brexit, the Department of Agriculture recruited a lot of veterinary surgeons to work at the ports in anticipation of a heavily increased workload," the vet claimed. "However, their main job is checking cattle and I understand there are not appropriate facilities to check horses individually. A lorry could contain six horses and the driver may present six passports but do the markings correspond?"

Two of the biggest issues which need to be resolved are the provision of an incinerator for the safe and humane disposal of unwanted horses, and the enforcement of 'transfer of ownership' regulations.

"Why do we not have a proper system for the disposal of equine carcasses?," he asked. "We bear some criticism here in that we haven’t grappled with the disposal of unwanted horses. Incinerators or crematoria for animals are used in Britain and they are a responsible solution but they are not welcome by communities here."

He added: "The transfer of ownership of horses is still problematic. Nobody would sell a car without making sure the buyer was listed as the registered owner immediately. But the system is not as robust for equines. Sometimes the breeder remains as the registered owner for the lifetime of the horse. This allows unscrupulous traders to buy and sell horses without any paper trail carrying their name."