Gordon Elliott rocked by stable exodus as Tiger Roll is pulled from Grand National

Jeremy Wilson
·9-min read
Action as runners clear a fence in the straight during The Close Brothers Handicap Chase at Kempton Park  - PA
Action as runners clear a fence in the straight during The Close Brothers Handicap Chase at Kempton Park - PA

Trainer Gordon Elliott suffered a further series of hammer blows ­on Tuesday, with a string of horses leaving his stable and Tiger Roll withdrawn from the Grand National and the chance to emulate Red Rum’s hat-trick of triumphs at ­Aintree.

On another damaging day for horse racing following the shocking emergence of a photograph of ­Elliott sitting astride a dead horse, new developments were:

  •  A video of jockey Rob James also sitting astride a dead horse after it had suffered a heart attack.

  •  Leading owners Cheveley Park Stud decided to remove eight horses from Elliott’s care, including their unbeaten superstar Envoi Allen.

  •  Tiger Roll was withdrawn from the Grand National following a row over his Aintree handicap.

  •  The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board decided to refer Elliott to a hearing on Friday where he could face a disrepute charge.

With less than two weeks until the start of the Cheltenham Festival, Elliott’s horses have already been suspended from competing in Britain by the British Horseracing Authority, pending the outcome of the IHRB’s inquiry and hearing.

Although the owners of Tiger Roll, Michael and Eddie O’Leary, have not removed their horses from Elliott’s Cullentra House stables, they announced on Tuesday that their most famous horse would not run at the Grand National.

They cited the “patently unfair” and “unwarranted” decision to mark him at 166, but expressed hope that he would still run at Cheltenham in the Cross Country race.

Elliott, who is a three-time Grand National-winning trainer, had ­previously described the 11st 9lb allotted to Tiger Roll as “fair”. He won his first National off 150, his second off 159 and would have run off 170 had the race taken place last year.

With the O’Learys still standing by Elliott, Cheveley Park acted on Tuesday morning by removing their eight horses. They said that they were “horrified and dismayed” by the photograph.

Their horses will now be split between trainers Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins, with Envoi Allen joining De Bromhead ahead of the Festival, where he will be clear favourite for the Grade One Marsh Novices’ Chase, and Sir Gerhard moving to Mullins.

“We have real professionals on the job to hopefully resolve this very quickly and for it to be very smooth – it is unfortunate timing,” said Cheveley Park’s director, Richard Thompson.

“We had to consider what was happening with the building story and the backdrop of Cheveley’s reputation – in terms of maybe the most important British-owned racing and breeding operation in the UK.

“We’ve been racing and breeding for coming up to 46 years. We had to take a decision as a board of directors to dissociate ourselves with Gordon at this time and do the right thing by the stud and by the industry.”

When asked if there was a possibility of Cheveley Park having horses with Elliott again in the long term, Thompson added: “For the time being we’re moving the horses and that’s it. I explained to him [Elliott] that we had to do the right thing by Cheveley Park and the right thing by our standing in the industry and what people expect of us.

“I’m not going to make a comment about long term, but certainly in the short to medium term these horses will stay with Henry and ­Willie.”

Elliott trained the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Don Cossack, as well as Grand National winners in 2007, 2018 and 2019, but his participation in both those forthcoming meetings is now in serious doubt.

Although Elliott is licensed in Ireland, and so any disciplinary charge and potential sanction rests with the IHRB, the BHA has stressed its jurisdiction over his runners in British races. A proven charge of “bringing racing into disrepute” would carry sanctions ranging from a fine to a licence suspension.

Elliott has apologised “profoundly” and said he sat on the horse after receiving a phone call.

James, who rode a winner trained by Elliott at Cheltenham last year, has also apologised following the emergence of a separate video on social media which shows him ­sitting astride a dead horse beside a gallop, accompanied by laughter from onlookers.

Describing his actions as “inappropriate and disrespectful”, James said the horse was a “lovely five-year-old mare, who unfortunately suffered a sudden cardiac arrest” while being exercised in April 2016.

“To try defending my stupidity at the time would add further insult and hurt to the many loyal people that have supported me during my career,” he told The Irish Field. “I have caused embarrassment to my employers, my family and most importantly the sport I love. I am heartbroken by the damage I have caused and will do my best to try and make amends.”

The horse racing industry was already reeling from the Elliott photograph and fears over the associated damage to the sport’s reputation.

After releasing a statement on Sunday, Elliott gave a first interview since the photograph was published.

“It is indefensible,” Elliott told the Racing Post. “Whether alive or dead, the horse was entitled to dignity. A moment of madness that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life paying for.

“It absolutely breaks my heart to read and hear people say I have no respect for my horses. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Horses are all I have.

“When your world starts crumbling in front of you, it’s a scary place to be. I just hope people can understand how truly sorry I am and find some way to forgive me for what I have done.”

Three spring festivals
Three spring festivals
An issue of stupidity rather than welfare

By Marcus Armytage, Racing Correspondent

After the photo and now the video there will be a lot of people from the outside looking in at racing thinking that abusing dead horses is a cultural problem in the sport. And, quite honestly, who can blame them for thinking this sort of behaviour is endemic?

But it is not the racing I know, having worked and ridden out until I quit race-riding in 2000 and having visited innumerable yards since. I believe, essentially, we are dealing with a stupidity issue here rather than a welfare one.

Indeed, of all the criticisms of Gordon Elliott, including my own on Monday, no one has questioned the wellbeing of his horses in the care of him and his staff.

If, however, the enormity of his mistake had not hit home it will have done on Tuesday lunchtime as the first cracks began to appear in the edifice he has built from Meath mud.

That was when he saw the sleek bay backside of Envoi Allen, the seven-year-old he has nurtured to an 11 race unbeaten record and a possible future Gold Cup winner, disappearing up the ramp of horsebox bound for a new home, the Waterford yard of Henry de Bromhead.

Are there any positives for racing to take from this? Well, one thing is that one within the sport no one is remotely attempting to sweep this under the carpet; there has been as much outrage within the racing industry as without and I have never seen trainers, who are all individual operators, so united in their disgust, upset and feeling of betrayal.

To its credit the British Horseracing Authority has never been more on the front-foot on an issue and if ever it sent someone a gold embossed dis-invitation to Cheltenham it was its ‘interim’ measure to ban Elliott trained horses from Britain until the sometimes ponderous Irish Horserace Regulatory Board have held their referral meeting on Friday.

This may have been in part to chivvy along the process in Ireland and in part to apply some pressure to the IHRB to act firmly.

However even if the IHRB do decide that it warrants a ban for bringing racing into disrepute, Elliott would normally have two week’s grace before that kicks in – technically allowing him to have runners at Cheltenham.

But, clearly, not if the BHA has its way.

The mobile phone camera and social media is one of the great toxic combinations of the modern era – something I keep trying to warn my children about. Everything is snapped and most of it shared on one platform or another.

And while Elliott and the amateur rider Rob James, whose apology came across so much better and more genuine than the trainer’s, have paid a heavy price for learning that incontrovertible truth, that very same combination must also, in a perverse way, be regarded as something of a safeguard.

It is difficult to get away with anything now and if this behaviour truly was endemic within racing one presumes the internet would be awash with such images not just one from 2016 and another from 2019.

But the brutal consequence for racing is that those two images will now adorn the sport’s business card for the foreseeable future and a million pictures of stable staff cuddling, petting and pampering the horses they look after will never redress the balance on those lop-sided scales.

Born and brought up in a racing stable horses have always been a part of my life. The recurring argument with my wife is ‘can we have another?’

One of the abiding memories of my early teenage years was the day when a good horse at home called Straight Jocelyn, a 17 hand gentle giant, died of a heart attack underneath my father, who had ridden him out every day of his life, trotting off the end of the gallop. My father was so cut up no-one could speak to him for the rest of the day.

When my mother was brought down in one of the very first ladies’ races in the 1970s, breaking her thigh which was to leave her with a permanent limp, the initial distress was not so much about her injury but the fatal injury suffered by the horse.

Horses give us great highs but for the vast majority of people who work with them and look after them, coming home with an empty bridle, whether that was once filled by multiple winner or an old plodder, remains the most painful experience, the one downside to a sport with so many upsides.