The Referrals Committee, Mr. Justice Raymond Groarke, Mr. Nick Wachman and The Hon. Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan convened to consider the referral of Mr. Gordon Elliott (Trainer) following an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) investigation into an image circulating on social media.
Having considered the evidence, the Referrals Committee found Mr. Elliott in breach of Rules 272(i) in that he acted in a manner which was prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and good reputation.
The decision read out by Mr. Justice Groarke is set out below.
A photograph was published on social media this past weekend showing licensed trainer Gordon Elliott sitting astride a horse who appeared to be dead. This photograph caused considerable public dismay and anger given not only what was depicted but also the jovial demeanour and gesticulations of Mr Elliott.
In short order the IHRB received an avalanche of complaints and the matter was rightly and fully scrutinised on the media.
This Referrals Committee sits to consider Mr Elliott’s conduct in the context of Rules 272 and 273(xiii) of The Rules of Racing and Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Rules.
Rule 272 states:
‘Any person involved in horseracing who, within the jurisdiction of the Irish Horse Racing Board:
(i) Whether verbally or by conduct or behaviour, acts in a manner which is prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing (whether or not such behaviour or conduct, verbal, or otherwise is associated directly with horseracing)
shall be in breach of these Rules and liable to sanction.
Rule 273(xiii) states:
‘It shall be a breach of these Rules for any person to do any act which in the opinion of the Referrals Committee or the Appeals Body is likely to be prejudicial to the interests of the IHRB or which is likely to cause serious damage to the interests of horseracing in Ireland whether or not such an act shall otherwise amount to a breach of these Rules or any Regulation or instruction made thereunder.
Mr Elliott has not contested the fact of the photograph and says that it was taken in 2019 on the gallops following the death of the Horse Morgan. He admits that he is in breach of Rule 272(i) and so in our view Rule 273(xiii) is redundant in those circumstances.
We have considered all of the written and oral evidence provided by the IHRB and Mr Elliott. Much of the evidence is uncontroversial as Mr Elliott has accepted that his conduct was “disgraceful” “horrific” and ”wholly inappropriate and distasteful”. He also accepts that his conduct was indefensible and inimical to the reputation of horse racing and he recognises the damage he has caused to the reputation of horse racing. We proceed on that basis.
1. This Committee is of the view that the photograph shows the most appalling bad taste on the part of Mr. Elliott insofar as it demonstrates a complete absence of respect for the horse at a time when he still remains in his charge. We believe that respect is an integral and essential part of the duty owing by those in charge of animals alive or dead.
2. It is undoubtedly and most regrettably the case that the reputation and integrity of horseracing has consequently been brought into disrepute and has been prejudiced and serious damage has been caused to a sport enjoyed and loved by so many.
3. 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.
4. The photograph, on any reasonable objective interpretation, suggests that Mr Elliott:
(a) is heedless to the fact that a horse in his charge has just died;
(b) that he, by sitting on the horse and by his demeanour, is treating the dead animal as an object of amusement;
(c) fails to maintain the degree of respect to which an animal in his charge is entitled and to protect the integrity of the animal be it alive or dead;
(d) callously participated in posing for a photograph which, given all the circumstances, was entirely inappropriate.
5. Mr Elliott participated in the photographic exercise when he knew or ought to have known that the result might well end up in public which shows an extraordinary lack of judgment on his part.
6. Mr Elliott has offered no credible explanation to us.
However, it is important to note that this incident is not one of cruelty to animals in the strict sense nor on the basis of the evidence we have received from the An Garda Siochana and from Sharon Power CEO and Co- Founder of Irish Horse Welfare is it an animal welfare issue. Also, it has not been suggested to the Committee that the horses in Mr Elliott’s care are maintained and looked after other than to the highest standards. This is confirmed by the witnesses we have heard from including the veterinary evidence and in our view Mr Elliott’s success is testament to the care and attention he has provided to his horses.
In the view of the Committee there is also a sinister aspect to this case. The Committee are satisfied that the publication of this photograph is part of a concerted attack upon Mr Elliott, the full circumstances of which are unknown. This has been canvassed not for the purpose of defence or absolution but in order to explain the publication at this time of a photograph which has existed since 2019.
The committee recognises that the sanction must be arrived at taking into account all of the circumstances, and the aggravating and mitigating factors including Mr Elliott’s personal circumstances, in order to achieve a proportionate result.
In particular, the following matters have been taken into account by the Committee:
(1) Outrage has been expressed by the racing and non-racing public that a horse, albeit deceased, could be treated in this manner. This Committee shares the public disquiet and believes and insists that animals, either alive or dead, must receive proper respect most especially from those in whose charge they happen to be.
(2) The consequences of Mr Elliott’s actions have damaged the reputation of the Irish racing and the thoroughbred industry.
(3) Mr Elliott has expressed what we believe to be a genuine remorse and accepts that he is unlikely to forget this episode in his life. We believe that he genuinely accepts that he was extraordinarily foolish to participate in the way he did.
(4) Mr Elliott fully cooperated with the investigated carried out by IHRB, he put his hands up at the earliest opportunity and fully accepted that his actions had offended many people; that what he did was wrong and unforgiveable and indefensible.
(5) Whilst the incident in question was unforgivable, it was, nonetheless, an event which took place without deliberation or forethought over a time period of some seconds. There was a pointed absence of common sense.
(6) The sanction to be visited upon Mr Elliott by this Committee is but one of a plethora of punishments which he is already suffering and will likely continue to suffer. These include serious damage to his reputation and, anecdotally, substantial economic loss through loss of business contracts and departure of horses from his yard to be trained elsewhere. The committee also bears in mind the evidence from Dr Pugh of the effect on his health.
(7) There is also a community of people either working for Mr Elliott or dependent on the business in the locality which will suffer considerable adverse consequences.
(8) The Committee believes that the sanction to be imposed must deter this type of behaviour.
We consider that a suspension of Mr Elliott’s training licence is merited. In all of the circumstances of this case, to reflect the seriousness of the offence and the damage to the Irish racing industry, to deter other offences of this nature and having taken into account the mitigating factors we have heard we consider the period should be 12 months however the last six months of this will be suspended.
The Committee also notes that Mr Elliott has stated to the Committee that he will not attend a Race meeting or a Point to Point for 6 months and we accept that helpful course.
We also accede to the application for costs by the IHRB in the sum of €15,000
The commencement date for sanction will by agreement be 9 March 2021.