It comes with the territory for the chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority that you can never be entirely sure when or where the next big problem will emerge. The scandal surrounding a picture of Gordon Elliott posing for a camera astride a dead horse on his gallops that emerged last week was, technically at least, outside the jurisdiction of Julie Harrington, who took over the role in January, but she knows only too well how much damage has been done to British racing over the past seven days and that it will be down to the BHA to repair as much as it can.
Harrington appeared on ITV’s Opening Show programme on Saturday to outline a little of what needs to happen next after Gordon Elliott was banned from training for 12 months on Friday – with six months suspended.
“There’s a huge amount of work that’s already been done by the whole industry,” Harrington said, “and I think ITV has been a big part of that in terms of telling the stories, interviewing the people who work in yards when they walk back with their horses, and seeing the passion that they hold for their horses. But all of us who work in racing have a camera roll on our phones full of far more positive images.
“Trainers are fantastic spokespeople, with open days up and down the land. It’s not about words, it’s about actions and people seeing with their own eyes the love and care that we give our horses, it’s really important.”
It is the only possible response to a PR disaster: a sustained PR push in the opposite direction. But a thousand positive images of racing, of the people who devote their lives to looking after racehorses and whose dedication was betrayed by Elliott in a shameful act of gross, unfathomable stupidity, will never fully erase the memory of that single, repellent image.
It is out there now and always will be. Stop 100 people in the street in six months’ time, ask them to name the first thing to pop into their head at a mention of horse racing and you can be sure that many will say: the trainer on the dead horse.
Friday’s hearing by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board acknowledged that Elliott’s ban from training “is one of a plethora of punishments which he is already suffering and will likely continue to suffer” as a result of his actions. But everyone who works in racing, everyone who adores the horses and the sport, will also still be paying some kind of price for what he did long after his ban has expired.
On that basis, and bearing in mind the lifetime ban from racing some were calling for was never going to happen, six months with another six suspended is perhaps as lenient a penalty as Elliott could expect. He is not banned from racing, he is simply banned from holding a trainer’s licence.
Denise Foster, who trains less than 15 minutes’ drive from Elliott’s Cullentra House stables in County Meath, is reportedly taking over the licence to train there from next week, but Elliott will still be living on the property and there is little doubt he will still play a major role in the operation.
Dozens of horses at the Cheltenham Festival, in other words, will be “his” runners, and no doubt widely seen as such, even though Elliott’s name will no longer be on the racecard and Foster will officially get the credit – and the trainer’s share of the prize money.
Sedgefield 1.50 Dargiannini 2.20 Brian Boranha 2.55 Tomorrow’s Angel 3.25 Mr Muldoon 3.55 Blaster Yeats 4.30 Unai 5.00 Ragamuffin
Huntingdon 2.00 Marada (nap) 2.30 Supremely Lucky 3.05 Coquelicot 3.35 Bay Of Intrigue (nb) 4.05 Very First Time 4.40 Midnight Aurora 5.10 Quid Pro Quo
A more stringent penalty, however, would have put up to 80 jobs at the yard at immediate risk. Just as it is impossible to quantify the extent of the damage done to racing image by the photograph of Elliott, however, it is also impossible to know how many jobs in British and Irish racing as a whole will not be there in 10 or 20 years’ time because of the festering wound he inflicted in his “moment of madness”.