At a hearing today the Irish Horse Racing Board (IHRB) Referrals Committee considered evidence of how an image of horseracing trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse may have breached its rules.  The committee decided to ban Elliott from racing for 12 months (with 6 months suspended) and ordered him to pay €15,000 in costs. 

Rule Breached ?

At the time of writing there is a distinct dearth of information about the hearing, including the rule allegedly breached. 

The most probable rule breached is Rule 272 (i) which provides for the sanctioning of: “Any person involved in horseracing who, within the jurisdiction of the IHRB…acts in a manner which is prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing (whether or not such behaviour or conduct, verbal or otherwise is associated directly with horseracing).

Given the level of public scrutiny, it is not surprising that the sanction is significantly harsher than previous sanctions for "prejudicing the good reputation of horseracing" (i.e. cruelty to horses). 

History of Lenient Sanctions

Take one example – in 2017, images of jockey Davy Russell punching his horse were captured on TV. 

He was “charged” under the same Rule 272 (i) as Gordon Elliott – i.e. that punching a horse is prejudicial to the integrity and reputation of horse racing.  

In his defence, Mr Russell accepted his actions were inappropriate but explained his horse had been inattentive at the start of the race, so he used his fist to hit the horse on the soft part of the horse's neck just behind the head to make the horse concentrate. 

After considering the evidence, the Referrals Committee cautioned Mr Russell (no ban or fine).  Certain sections of the public were outraged. The then Turf Club’s internal review committee appealed Mr Russell's sanction on the grounds it was unduly lenient. The Turf Club Appeals Body imposed a four-day ban from racing on Mr Russell having found that the offence was in the middle range. No fine was imposed, citing the financial implications on a jockey losing 4 days racing. 

Other examples of seemingly lenient sanctions when compared with Elliot’s, include:

-    a one day ban for a jockey headbutting a horse in 2006, 

-    a 4 month suspension for a trainer who’s horse tested positive for an anabolic steroid at a 2019 race in Ballinrobe.

How can Irish horse racing restore its reputation ?

Horse racing has had a history of deficient regulation and disciplinary measures. It is sad that it takes an image of an apparently ridiculed dead horse to expose that.  Elliott should not be a scapegoat, but a watershed for reform. Some suggestions:

(i)    Update its disciplinary rules and standards;

(ii)    Create bespoke offences and sanctions which specifically deal with animal welfare;

(iii)    Implement and enforce a charter or code for min standards of animal welfare;

(iv)    Increase powers of inspection of horseracing stables and premises; 

(v)    Create and increase powers/roles for animal welfare officers;

(vi)    Implement whistleblowing protections. 

Irish horse racing’s credibility is on line, and its reputation needs to be urgently restored.