Trying to defend racing’s integrity is like trying to defend Conor McGregor’s chequered reputation outside of the octagon as the equine industry stumbles from one controversy to the next.
he latest scandal is indefensible with a photo of Gordon Elliott emerging over the weekend which shows the leading jumps trainer sitting atop a dead horse on the gallops while on the phone and holding up two fingers in an apparent peace gesture.
It’s a disgusting photo which isn’t a fair representation of those working in racing, but yet another example of the catalogue of incidents which continue to undermine the sport and leave many vilifying the industry.
The statement which Elliott made to confirm the photo’s authenticity late on Sunday night was nothing short of bizarre as he threw further fuel on the fire in an effort to give context to the photo which was taken some time ago.
“I was standing over the horse waiting to help with the removal of the body, in the course of which, to my memory I received a call and, without thinking, I sat down to take it. Hearing a shout from one of my team, I gestured to wait until I was finished,” Elliott explained, while he made further apologies in an interview with the Racing Post last night.
Nearly a year on from the 2020 Cheltenham Festival being branded as a carnival for the coronavirus, racing’s reputation has consistently been dragged through the mud in the last 12 months and it’s still reeling in the wake of the Viking Hoard case. It seems to be one embarrassing incident after another for Irish racing as the narrative moves from a doped horse and suspicious betting patterns to animal welfare with Elliott replacing banned trainer Charles Byrnes as the villain of the hour.
Instances such as these continue to undermine the trust and faith which people have in the sport and animal rights protestors will rightfully have a field day given the nature of the image of the stricken horse, Morgan, taken on Elliott’s Meath gallops in 2019.
This adds further reputational damage to racing with the shadow of the Cheltenham Festival looming this day fortnight – which also adds another question as to the timing of the photo’s release – and an emotionally distraught Mick Fitzgerald summed up the mood of many on At The Races yesterday.
The legendary jockey fought back tears as he expressed his sadness over an image which will haunt racing for some time and his comments were particularly noteworthy given how criticism is rarely thrown about between those in racing circles.
“When I read that statement, I felt so sad,” a shellshocked Fitzgerald said.
“The number one thing that we have to get out to everybody is how much we care about these horses. It is so important that everybody who is watching this channel, who has any interest at all in our sport, knows that at the heart of this are people who love these animals. It’s making me quite emotional.
“These horses have given me a life that I’m privileged to have. It just makes me feel really sad.”
Fitzgerald realises that one person’s misguided actions will ultimately hurt an entire industry by feeding an animal rights agenda that is already ensuring that the whip is likely to become a thing of the past on British racecourses in the near future.
Elliott’s immediate future on British soil is also uncertain following the British Horseracing Authority’s decision to suspend him pending the outcome of an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board investigation.
Elliott’s case is likely to be for a potential breach of Rule 272 (i), which relates to “behaviour that is prejudicial to the integrity or good reputation of horseracing.”
Nobody knows exactly what the future holds for three-time Aintree Grand National-winning trainer, but he faces a long and winding road if he is to rebuild his tarnished reputation in the sport which he has made his own over the past 15 years. After a day of widespread criticism, he told the Racing Post that it was an “indefensible moment of madness” on his part
Elliott, who turns 43 today, may not hail from racing stock with his father a panel beater and his mother a housewife, but he is a big player at its top table with only Willie Mullins trumping his extraordinary training achievements in recent seasons.
Whether that rise will lead to a spectacular fall like many before him remains to be seen with the possibility that stars like Envoi Allen, Sir Gerhard and Quilixios could depart for pastures new as his fate is in the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s (IHRB) hands.
Michael O’Leary, whose Gigginstown House Stud owned the seven-year-old Morgan, has vowed to support Elliott during his darkest hour, but others may not do likewise and these are the most trying times for the under-fire Cullentra handler.
For a man with his insatiable thirst for winners, this saga can be nothing but a losing battle for him and the racing industry as a whole.