The betting company Betfair have immediately dropped Gordon Elliott as an ambassador after the triple Grand National-winning trainer admitted that a photograph of him sitting astride a dead horse was genuine.
Elliott is already facing the prospect of disciplinary action ahead of the Cheltenham Festival in 15 days which could mean missing the Grand National next month, where his horse Tiger Roll would have the chance of emulating Red Rum in becoming a three-time winner.
The 42-year-old has apologised “profoundly” after the photo appeared on social media, saying that the incident happened “some time ago” and that his recollection was of receiving a phone call shortly after the horse had died of a suspected heart attack while on the gallops.
The animal rights group Animal Aid has already called for Elliott to be banned and Betfair, for whom Elliott is an ambassador, have immediately terminated their relationship with the Irish trainer.
“While we recognise that Gordon deeply regrets and apologised unreservedly for his poor judgement his actions are completely at odds with the values of the Betfair brand and that of our employees,” said a spokesperson. “With that in mind, we have decided to discontinue our association with Gordon with immediate effect.”
The picture, which shows Elliott flashing what looks like a two-fingered peace sign while sat astride the dead horse with his mobile phone to his ear, is being investigated by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, Elliott could face a charge of “bringing racing into disrepute”. If found guilty, punishments range from a fine to a licence suspension.
Should any disciplinary charge result in a suspension, there is generally a 14-day time-gap until the sanction begins. The Cheltenham Festival begins on March 16 and runs until March 19. The Grand National is scheduled for April 10.
Elliott is licenced in Ireland and, although the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has no direct jurisdiction, they will be acutely aware of the potential backlash and its timing ahead of the Cheltenham Festival and less than six weeks before the Grand National.
Elliott’s string for Cheltenham includes several favourites, notably the unbeaten novice chaser Envoi Allen and Tiger Roll, who won the 2018 and 2019 Grand National and could emulate Red Rum with a third Aintree triumph.
The BHA issued a statement expressing their concern at the “shocking picture” and urged speed with the investigation. “We hope the Irish authorities will quickly confirm how this shocking picture originated,” said a spokesperson.
"Respect for horses is a fundamental value of our sport, contrary to the impression in this picture.”
The IHRB intends to deal with the matter in the coming days. They must first decide whether to refer the case to a disciplinary hearing, who would themselves decide whether a breach had occurred. The charge of "bringing racing into disrepute" has been used recently for racecourse Covid-protocol breaches in Ireland and carries wide-ranging sanctions which include a license suspension.
Elliott, who trained the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Don Cossack and won the Grand National in 2018 and 2019 with Tiger Roll, said in his statement “that the welfare of each and every horse under my care” is paramount. “I appreciate that an initial viewing of this photo suggests it is a callous and staged photo but nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“At what was a sad time, which it is when any horse under my care passes away, my initial reaction was to get the body removed from where it was positioned.
“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. To the racing community, to anyone who has worked with and loves horses and to anyone offended by this image I cannot apologise enough.”
The IHRB suspended Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer Charles Byrnes for six months earlier this year after Viking Hoard was found to have tested positive for a sedative following a race at Tramore in which he was heavily laid to lose.
Byrnes was not linked to the doping, but he was found to have been “seriously negligent” in supervising the horse and to have “indulged in an unacceptable level of risk taking in the supervision of his charge” at the racecourse.
David Dunne also had a four-month suspension last after one of his horses, Druim Samhraidh, tested positive for an anabolic steroid.