Until last week, Gordon Elliott had the kind of backstory the sports world loves – the son of a car mechanic who rose from nothing to become a superstar in British and Irish horse racing through sheer guts and determination.
His renown as a horse trainer is unparalleled. He’s won the Grand National steeplechase three times and dominates the Cheltenham Festival on a regular basis. He’s transformed a derelict dairy farm in Ireland into a racing juggernaut stacked with nearly 200 horses, including Tiger Roll, the first two-time winner of the Grand National in nearly 50 years. “There’s only one thing I want to be,” he once said “That’s a champion trainer. I don’t really care about anything else.”
But now Elliott’s future has been thrown into turmoil over a scandal that has shaken the sport and raised questions about how the racing industry treats horses.
It centres around a photograph of Elliott taken in 2019, which surfaced on social media this week. The picture showed him sitting on a dead horse named Morgan, flashing a “V” sign while chatting on his cellphone.
The image sparked a public outcry and led to calls for Elliott to be banned from racing. Several companies, including gambling giant Betfair, immediately cut their ties to the trainer and some owners pulled their horses from his Cullentra House stables. “It is just such an appalling image,” champion jockey Peter Scudamore told the BBC this week. “It just hit the bottom of my stomach.”
On Friday the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board banned Elliott for 12 months, with the last six months suspended. In its ruling the IHRB said the photograph showed “appalling bad taste” and added; “There can be no doubt but that the production of the subject photograph has been a cause of enormous distress to all those who appreciate the enjoyment that horses brings to their lives.” The British Horseracing Authority is expected to impose a similar sanction and it has already banned Elliott from racetracks in Britain.
Elliott has offered several apologies and he didn’t contest the IHRB’s ruling. “I am paying a heavy price for my error but I have no complaints,” he said in a statement on Friday. “I was disrespectful to a dead horse, an animal that had been a loyal servant to me and was loved by my staff.”
In a statement earlier this week he explained that the horse had suffered a heart attack during training. He added that he was standing over the body when he received a phone call. “Without thinking, I sat down to take it. Hearing a shout from one of my team, I gestured to wait until I was finished,” he said. “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.”
His comments have done little to quell the uproar or the growing debate about the welfare of race horses. “The main subject of that picture is the dead horse,” said Dene Stansall of Animal Aid, a non-profit group that campaigns for better treatment of race horses. “Why did he die and how many of these horses are dying?”
Few argue that horse racing is dangerous, especially steeplechase, in which horses jump over barriers that stand up to 1.5 metres tall. The Grand National covers 7.2 kilometres and horses have to clear 30 jumps made of woven spruce branches. In 2019 Up for Review fell at the first fence and television viewers briefly watched the horse convulsing on the turf before dying. Two other horses died during the three-day series of races.
According to figures complied by the BHA, 135 horses died in all races last year across Britain. That was down from 177 in 2019, although there were fewer races in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 202 horses died in 2018.
Stansall and others believe the death toll is higher because the BHA doesn’t include horses that die in training, which could account for an additional 200 deaths annually. He adds that horses are being put under increasing strain through over-racing, intensive training and specialized diets that are not designed for the horse’s well-being.
The Grand National and BHA insist that racing has improved and that animal care is paramount. “As a consequence of British racing’s investment in safety, welfare and health, the number of horses that have died on racecourses has decreased by one third in the last 20 years, to 0.18 per cent of runners,” the BHA said. The Grand National said it has changed fences to make them more forgiving and improved postrace care for horses to prevent injuries.
Many people have stood by Elliott, including Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, who co-owns Tiger Roll and Morgan, the horse in the photograph. “We accept Gordon’s sincere, profound and unreserved apology and we will continue to support him and his team at Cullentra,” O’Leary said in a statement.
But Elliott’s career remains uncertain and he spoke this week about the toll the scandal has taken. “When your world starts crumbling in front of you, it’s a scary place to be,” he told the Racing Post. “My whole life has revolved around horses since I was a child. I know nothing else. Horses are all I have. I came from nothing and built a dream.”