Irish trainer Gordon Elliott has been forced to issue an apology after an old photograph of him was leaked online. The man who has trained in excess of 140 winning horses at Cheltenham appears in a photograph sitting astride the body of a dead horse, using his telephone and doing a ‘peace’ sign with his fingers. The County Meath-based horse trainer is one of the most successful in the industry, having three Grand National wins to his name.
The reaction to the leaking of the photograph has been one of shock from the horse racing industry, with the Jockey Club referring to the ‘anger and upset across racing’. As a result of the leak, the betting company Betfair has chosen to end its association with Elliott, who had been working as an ambassador for them.
Things took a turns for the worse for Elliott later on 1st March when the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced a temporary ban while an investigation is carried out, stating:
“It is an interim decision which the BHA regards as proportionate in these circumstances,”
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) has also started an investigation in Ireland where the trainer is licensed. This means all Elliott trained horses are now banned from running in the UK for the time being although owners have been told they can transfer their horses to a new trainer if they wish – something which Cheveley Park Stud have already decided to do, moving all 8 of their horses to Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins. Envoi Allen, the odds on favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Chase moved to de Bromhead and will be a huge loss for the Elliot racing stable.
Given how close we are now to the Cheltenham Festival it is looking ominous for Elliott who was the second most successful trainer at The Festival in 2020. The Grand National is due to take place on the 10th April and Gordon is due to enter no less than 15 horses into the big race, including Tiger Roll bidding for an unprecedented third consecutive win.
An initial hearing has been set for Friday 5th March with the IHRB and the BHA head of welfare has stating their “intention isn’t to stop horses running” – suggesting there is hope for Elliott runners at the Festival. The trainer had hoped to enter no less than 104 horses across the 28 races.
On Saturday evening, a photograph of Gordon Elliott sitting with his legs either side of a dead horse, using his mobile phone and holding his fingers up in something akin to a ‘peace’ sign was leaked onto social media. It is a terrible image of the Irish horse racing trainer, upsetting to look at for many. It comes a week or so after a video was shared on WhatsApp of him drinking in a crowded bar with workers from his yard at a time when they shouldn’t be.
There is a suggestion from some quarters that someone with a grudge is trying to bring Elliott down, which might well have some truth to it. Yet even if that is the case, the fact that the man himself has admitted that the photograph is real is damning; someone might have a grievance against him but the look of him sitting on a dead horse isn’t a good one. It’s likely that that will be an image used by critics of the industry for years to come.
We’ve chosen not to show the image here but it is very easy to understand the outrage from the description alone.
What Elliott Has Said
There were many in the horse racing industry that were hoping that the photograph would prove to be a fake, such is the extent to which it is damning of the champion trainer. Sadly those hopes were dashed when Gordon Elliott himself released a statement confirming that it was real and apologising for his actions. Whether the apology will prove to be good enough to rescue him remains to be seen, but this is what he said:
“I apologise profoundly for any offence that this photo has caused. I can categorically state that the welfare of each and every horse under my care is paramount and has been central to the success that we have enjoyed.
The photo in question was taken some time ago and occurred after a horse had died of an apparent heart attack on the gallops.
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.
Such background information may seem trivial at this time and will not allay the concerns of many people both within and outside the world of horse racing.”
If the photograph was bad, the excuse hasn’t helped. Anyone that has seen the picture will struggle to believe Elliott’s version of events, given that it in no way looks like what he’s attempted to describe is what has actually happened. It certainly appears as though he has a smile on his face rather than is deeply upset at the loss of one of his horses, so the reaction of the industry is one that is entirely understandable.
What Others Are Saying
As you can imagine, the response of the photo being leaked has been widespread. Michael O’Leary, who runs the Gigginstown stud from which Tiger Roll runs, has said that he will ‘continue to support’ Elliott and his team as they move to ‘recover from this deeply regrettable incident’. Whilst O’Leary called the photo ‘unacceptable’ and ‘grievous’, he stopped short of saying that he wouldn’t work with Elliott in the future.
Cheveley Park Stud, meanwhile, initially wouldn’t say anything more than that they are ‘truly horrified’ by the photo and will reserve full judgement until the IHRB has completed its investigation. With 24 hours, however, the owners decided to move their horses from Elliott’s stable (see later).
The Jockey Club has said that it is ‘totally unacceptable’ and that it is ‘not reflective of the respect and care that racehorses receive from participants in our sport. The Jockey Club, of course, owns both Cheltenham and Aintree racecourses.
Betfair’s decision to part company with the trainer is one that gives some indication of what will happen next. They said:
“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.”
It’s likely that other organisations will take the same approach to Elliott in the coming weeks.
What Happens Next
The British Horseracing Authority confirmed that it is ‘appalled’ at the situation, saying:
“We expect all those in our sport to demonstrate respect for horses, on the racecourse, in the training yard, on the gallops, and wherever they have horses in their care. People who work in our industry believe their values – of caring for and respecting our horses – have been deeply undermined by this behaviour.”
They went on to talk about the fact that the organisation finds the behaviour of Elliott to be ‘unequivocally…totally unacceptable’. In addition, the BHA is considering what, if any, regulatory options it has available regarding the trainer. It comes in the wake of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board confiming that it has launched an investigation, which could result in Elliott having his licence suspended.
Horse Racing Ireland is in full support of the IHRB’s investigation, saying:
“From a disciplinary perspective, the matter is in process, so any further comment on the matter or the detail of the case at this time would not be appropriate.”
With the Cheltenham Festival just a week or so away and with the trainer under a temporary ban, quite how quickly the BHA completes its investigation will be incredible telling. Will he be allowed to appear at the racecourse?
Even if the Irish horse racing body decides not to act, the British Horseracing Authority has stopped him from sending horses to UK races for the time being. It’s likely that the biggest issue will come if owners decide to walk away from him. The possibility that some horses might not be able to take part in the likes of the Cheltenham Festival and at Aintree could well be too much of a risk for many of them to take.
Star Envoi Allen and 7 Other Horses Move Trainer
It didn’t take long for Cheveley Park Stud, who have eight horses trained by Elliott, to take action. The day following the BHA ban they announced they would be moving all 8 of their runners away from Gordon Elliot, dividing the horses between Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead.
De Bromhead will take on Envoi Allen, the undefeated heavy odd-on favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Chase as well as stable mates Ballyadam (running in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) and Quilixios (due to run in the Triumph Hurdle). Willie Mullins will also acquire some new talent, most notably Sir Gerhard who is also undefeated and is most fancied for the Champion Bumper.
This will play into the hands of Willie Mullins in particular who will be seeking another top trainer crown to add to his already impressive haul. Nicky Henderson, however, weighed in with a warning that moving horses to new yards close to Cheltenham is fraught with risk and this could impact those horses.
Shocking Photo Photograph Has Touched A Nerve
There are many reasons why the release of the photograph has caused such a state of shock in the racing industry. The picture itself is abhorrent, which is enough to cause anger and disgust. On top of that, though, the reality is there are countless critics of the horse racing industry that will jump on this photograph as ‘proof’ that horses are treated with disdain and a lack of care by those that are supposed to provide for them.
The picture appears to undo years of good work within the industry to completely change its image, so it’s little wonder that the shockwaves are still being felt days after it became public. For some, the image will merely serve as confirmation that it is a cruel and abusive sport, even though most within horse racing are disgusted by it. If people want to denigrate horse racing then they need only look at that photograph to be able to do so.