Shock and anger are the abiding emotions in racing this morning, 12 hours after Gordon Elliott’s admission that the horrific image showing him astride a dead horse on his gallops, which had been circulating on social media since Saturday evening, is genuine.
But there is a sense of numbness too – a reluctance to assess not just the scale of the damage that the photograph has already inflicted on racing, but also how much worse it could get over the coming days and weeks.
Even the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) seems stunned into silence by the magnitude of the unfolding PR disaster. Nothing has emerged from the Irish regulator since a brief tweet to say that it was “aware” of the image early on Saturday evening.
In the meantime, the photograph has been around the world a dozen times and been viewed by millions. For some, it will simply reinforce an existing belief that the sport is abusive and cruel. Many more, though, will have no fixed opinion about racing one way or the other, beyond a sense that if others enjoy it or make a living from it and the horses are well cared for, where’s the harm?
It is not as bad as it looks, it is worse. The authorities need to act swiftly and decisively
Their minds will recoil from the photograph, as so many did within racing on Saturday and Sunday as we continue to hope against hope that it would prove to be faked. Once seen, it can’t be unseen, and for many it will be their one, abiding image of racing for years to come.
In this respect, Elliott’s deeply unconvincing attempt to provide “context” for the photograph on Sunday evening only makes things worse. Even if it all happened as he described – and the apparent series of unfortunate coincidences stretches credulity to breaking point – he must still have been aware that, for whatever bizarre reason, the moment had been recorded on camera. Did it really not dawn on him how damaging that could prove to be?
No one in racing can argue about the extent of Elliott’s achievements. He was the youngest trainer to win a Grand National in 2007, he has saddled 32 winners at the Cheltenham Festival and been the top trainer at the meeting twice. He also built up his hugely successful stable from scratch, with no silver spoon required.
Clearly, and perhaps inevitably, he has also made enemies along the way. Michael O’Leary’s horses were once spread around more than a dozen stables in Ireland, but Elliott has steadily emerged as top dog. A close-knit racing yard, meanwhile, can also foment bitter rivalries and jealousies.
More detail about the origins of the image and also who initially shared it online may emerge when the IHRB lodges a case against Elliott for bringing the sport into disrepute. There could also be a link to another video circulating on WhatsApp last week which seemed to show staff at the yard, Elliott included, drinking in a crowded bar.
In this context, the sudden emergence of the photograph a year or more after it was taken is unlikely to be a coincidence. Someone with a burning grievance against Elliott is seemingly determined to bring him down, and there will be those in racing who argue that malice should not be allowed to succeed. He is one of the best and most successful trainers the sport has seen, dozens of people at his stable depend on him for their livelihood and he has made – and admitted – one terrible mistake.
We are also likely to hear another familiar line from earlier occasions when the outside world looked into the racing bubble and was shocked by what it saw: “it’s not as bad as it looks”. And this is true – but only because, in a world of social media, instant messaging and millions of views in just a few hours, how something looks matters more than ever.
It is not as bad as it looks, it is worse and the IHRB needs to act swiftly and decisively to defend the sport’s image and reputation. The implications of a long ban for the trainer are considerable, both in the short term with the major Festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree looming and also, above all, for his many employees. Ultimately, though, the responsibility for what happens next lies not with the individual who shared the image, but with Elliott himself.
When he allowed himself, for whatever reason, to be photographed astride a dead horse while taking a phone call, Elliott failed not only his own employees, but every one of the many thousands of workers in racing, in Ireland and Britain, who cherish racehorses and devote their lives to caring for them. It seems unthinkable that his name could still be on the racecards at Cheltenham a fortnight tomorrow.
The developing situation around Gordon Elliott makes it a little difficult to focus on this afternoon’s action, but at Ayr, Reivers Lad (3.05) should atone for a fall five out when still going well last time, while Kalaharry (4.10) is third-favourite in a field of four despite a promsing run in a decent time at Carlisle last month. Nine Elms (4.20), who took a claimer over course and distance last time, could also be worth an interest stepping back into handicaps.
Plumpton 12.30 Jungle Prose 1.00 Summit Like Herbie 1.30 Natural History (nap) 2.05 Dorking Lad 2.40 Jackson Hill 3.15 Kilkeaskin Molly 3.50 Trevada
Ayr 1.20 Itsnotyouitsme 1.55 Zee Man 2.30 First Class Return 3.05 Reivers Lad (nb) 3.40 Billy Ray 4.10 Kalaharry 4.40 Event Of Sivola 5.10 Wheres Maud Gone
Wolverhampton 4.20 Elixsoft 4.50 Nine Elms 5.20 Twilight Secret 5.50 Huraiz 6.20 Ballyare 6.50 Jacattack 7.20 Damned Elusive 7.50 Autonomy