By Emma Berry
When the news came last week that award-winning racing journalist Chris Cook was moving on from The Guardian as the newspaper continued to reduce its staff, thoughts turned to a comment piece on how horseracing coverage in the mainstream media is continuing to slide. Come Monday morning, however, racing was all over the national news in Britain and Ireland, and not in a good way.
The distressing photograph of one of Ireland's leading National Hunt trainers apparently astride a dead horse had been widely circulated on Saturday evening and, like most racing fans, I had hoped initially that this was a cleverly photoshopped but vile hoax. Gordon Elliott's subsequent acknowledgement of the image's veracity and his bizarre apology on Sunday evening dashed any such hopes.
That Elliott has come in for much criticism is neither surprising nor unjustified, and the person who took the photo and added a crass Snapchat caption is equally culpable.
All of us involved with breeding, owning, training and caring for racehorses, as well as the sport's many fans and media commentators, are well aware of the fragility of these magnificent animals. The elements of the sport that bewitch us—the speed, courage, heart of the Thoroughbred—are also those that, in one wrong step or awkward landing, can end a horse's life and bring us to the depths of despair.
Almost the only justification we have in defending racing to an outside world increasingly alienated from dealing with livestock is that horses are treated with kindness and respect throughout their lives. It would never have occurred to me that a trainer who is fortunate enough to train a large string of some of the best jumpers in the world would not extend that respect to a horse whose life has recently ended in tragic circumstances during a routine morning exercise. It is also worth considering the fact that racing yards are largely populated by young people who take their cue in how to behave around horses from their boss, the trainer.
Do I think Gordon Elliott mistreats the horses in his care? I do not. He is a trainer whose relatively rapid climb to the top of his profession speaks volumes as to his horsemanship, skill and ambition. His horses would not perform as they do without an exemplary level of care from the trainer and his staff. But that is not enough.
An individual who is licensed under the rules of racing in any jurisdiction in the world must accept the responsibility that comes with that privilege, not just to their horses and their staff, but to the sport itself. Perception, particularly in the days of trial by social media, is the over-riding factor when it comes to racing's future.
While this image is clearly grim, in some ways, however, it is no more detrimental than news of horses failing drug tests. That is abuse, this photograph is abhorrent in its disrespect: both are unacceptable if racing is to continue to enjoy the backing of the public and sponsors.
The callous image may have been released as a deliberate ploy to harm the trainer's reputation but the real damage has been done by Elliott's inexplicable actions in the immediate aftermath of a horse's death. The repercussions from this incident provide grist to the mill for those who seek to ban racing under the supposed cloak of animal welfare: now, no matter how many times we point to the deluxe level of care and attention afforded to racehorses, we can expect to have this photograph waved in our faces.
Gordon Elliott will almost certainly pay for a dreadful but momentary lapse of judgement with a suspension or ban. He has certainly lost the collective respect of the majority of racing's participants and fans in the course of doing the sport incalculable harm.