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Dublin: 11°C Monday 19 April 2021

Punishment for Gordon Elliott must reflect the damage done to racing

The trainer has put so many jobs at risk, if not the sport’s future funding, writes Johnny Ward.


Imagine the utter horror his mind greeted this morning, presumably many times, as he woke from a nightmare to be greeted by something much worse.

And for racing, particularly Irish racing, things somehow got even more demoralising on social media on the morning marking two weeks until the Cheltenham Festival.

What a build-up.

gordon-elliott Gordon Elliott Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

I’ve sat down to write this after being on three separate radio stations this morning. It is habitual as a freelance racing journalist to expect an upsurge in demand around this time of year, but Cheltenham is now in danger of becoming not the celebration of a uniquely amazing sport, but rather a means with which those who do not like it can hammer it into submission.

Those of us who went to the Cotswolds last year were rightly or wrongly deemed pariahs, the Festival stupidly going ahead around the time Ireland had its first confirmed death from Covid-19.

Who would have thought that, 12 months on, the Festival would be nearing on the back of publicity so damaging that 2020 seems like a month on probation compared to a lifetime’s solitary confinement.

Of course we can get ahead of ourselves in the despondent stakes but this is bad, very bad. Racing needs to punish Elliott hard in my view, without pre-empting the outcome of a characteristically glacier-paced Irish Horseracing Regulatory Body investigation.

But our justified attempts to paint a picture of one of the biggest names in world jumps racing as an outlier appear increasingly like propaganda.

For a start, Elliott is flanked by somebody in that grotesque photo of him aboard the dead horse Morgan, whilst a trusted lieutenant took the photo and shared it.

If a picture is bad, a video – even the one only a few seconds long that circulated this morning on Twitter – can take it to another level.

Here we have Rob James mock-riding a dead horse and, worse, there’s audio of laughter to go with it. To be fair to James, his apology as released to the Irish Field today was dignified and laudable.

“To try defending my stupidity at the time would add further insult and hurt,” he said.

When Jane Mangan, a terrific ambassador for racing, appeared on Off The Ball last Friday, I marvelled at her decision to go to college and noted how rare it is for somebody in racing to achieve third-level education.

I could have elaborated to say that not only do very few in racing go to college, very many do not even finish secondary school. They live in a bubble, many of them ill-educated, destined as they are for a life that need not involve an actual CV.

That came to mind when I tried to picture why Elliott would get into a scenario where he felt it reasonable to sit on top of a horse who had just died running around a gallop trying to satisfy his human masters, smile and give an apparent peace sign to a colleague who thought that it was acceptable to send this to somebody via Snapchat.

And the video emerging on Tuesday morning elaborates on a theme that there are some people in racing whose sense of humour and basic intelligence is at odds with the rest of us, including people in racing.

And it is those racing people who need to now express their disgust, just as Mick Fitzgerald did, as Ruby Walsh did, as Dan Skelton did. Elliott needs to be put out of his misery too and, if ever the IHRB needed to get its act together, it is now.

Without being a judge or jury, to my mind there is no chance Gordon Elliott will be training a horse running at Cheltenham this year. The British Horseracing Authority has already put pressure on the IHRB by banning his runners over there pending the IHRB investigation, but it begs the question: what investigation?

Elliott has admitted his guilt, albeit initially with a storyline that was the equivalent of manic digging to get out of a 20-foot hole, and there is no investigation now other than to come up with a punishment. It needs to be so severe as to reflect a damage done to a sport that is, if not quantifiable, without question extremely severe.

You need to consider the ramifications. RTE’s exposé on the greyhound industry in 2019 was horrific for an industry embedded in rural Ireland, the future of the very sport now in real doubt in this country.

There are plenty of people who have it in for horse-racing, some of them in Sinn Féin, potentially the senior partner in the next government in this country.

The BHA is conscious of this, hammering Elliott in a press release even before he had issued his statement on Sunday evening and since barring his runners.

For the IHRB, CEO of which, Denis Egan, has been under pressure after the Viking Hoard fiasco, there is only one option here: go hard or go home.

There is no precedent for the punishment Elliott should receive – the four-day ban Davy Russell got for publicly punching a horse would be laughable if replicated here – but it can and must reflect the horrific PR the sport has suffered, how it has put so many jobs at risk, if not the sport’s future funding.

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Elliott has many flaws but I expect he would take his punishment on the chin. These are horrible, horrible times for a man who built up an empire from nothing over years, only to see it fall apart over days.

Owners need the IHRB to act for them, so that they can move their horses to another yard and run at Cheltenham for another trainer. Owners and horses do not deserve to be punished for Elliott’s stupidity.

tiger-roll-is-led-through-the-village-of-summerhill-co-meath-by-trainer-gordon-elliott-and-owner-michael-oleary Gordon Elliott and Michael O'Leary pictured with Tiger Roll in 2019. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Michael O’Leary has defended Elliott, and much of what he said on Monday is on the button: Elliott looks after his horses as if you were in a five-star hotel, at least as long as they are alive.

But Gigginstown’s withdrawal of Tiger Roll from the National today, on the purported grounds of excess weight, is akin to Michael O’Leary joining Elliott in the hole with a shovel of his own.

TG4′s simple if beautiful documentary aired of late, Laochra na Rásaíochta, featured a memorably moving segment on Monksfield last week. After Dessie McDonogh, who never trains more than a handful, talked about the iron-tough horse, he uttered a line that had both he and this cynical soul nearly in tears towards the end.

“I felt a real connection with Monksfield,” Dessie said, welling up, “and I really hope he felt it as well.”

Later, we would see the great Istabraq, not far off 30 but bucking around Martinstown like he was nearing another Champion Hurdle attempt.

That was last week. This week, months and years to come will recall dead horses being treated like a scene out of Abu Ghraib.

Elliott and James have had to deal with sickening abuse on social media and for that I feel for them. I know that they are sorry. Neither will ever be able to escape the magnitude of it all.

But racing is bigger than both and it needs to fight for its own survival.

About the author:

Johnny Ward

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