Images circulated this week shame the sport, conveying not simply a lack of respect but also a staggering deafness
In Barry Geraghty’s book True Colours, he paints an arresting picture of the December day at Cheltenham in 2007 that Macs Joy was lost to a broken leg.
Remembering the small, bay gelding as “my little star” and “a gorgeous horse”, Geraghty all but humanises Macs Joy for the reader. The language used resonates with connection and respect, with love and ultimate heartbreak in its recall of that Bula Hurdle, the horse freakishly snapping a tibia on a flat section down the back straight of the racecourse.
Dismounting immediately, Geraghty – with the skilled assistance of ghost-writer, Niall Kelly – hauntingly describes the trauma of what follows.
“For a moment, it’s just the two of us, alone out there on the far side of the track. I stay with him, do what I can to mind him, and I cry. I cry for him because I know what has to happen now. The vets arrive and put the screens up around him. When they’re ready, I say goodbye to my little friend and I leave him.
“I walk away, drop down to my knees and cover my ears. I don’t want to hear the bang of the gun.”
You don’t often encounter racing people reflecting so movingly on lost horses, largely because death is an unavoidable part of the sport’s landscape. To dwell on it can be debilitating, distracting. Ruby Walsh has always been honest enough to remind people that the thoroughbreds they nurture and race are not being kept as family pets.
“It’s outside the back-door,” Willie Mullins used say to him whenever they’d lose a horse.
The phrase, Walsh reckons, is an old Irish country saying communicating the obligation to move on, to keep some semblance of distance. “So although every dead horse is a terrible thing, his (Mullins’s) attitude is that we have to keep in mind that it could be a lot worse,” Ruby wrote in his autobiography.
“Be thankful that it’s outside the back door and not inside.”
That, historically, has been the survival mechanism within National Hunt. For stable hands, the horror of a horse they’ve been caring for on a daily basis not making it back to the box can be particularly devastating and lasting. But for trainers and jockeys, they simply cannot afford for it to be.
That doesn’t make them uncaring and it certainly does not translate into the kind of repugnant behaviour that is convulsing Irish racing just now.
Only Gordon Elliott and Rob James can explain their conduct, captured on camera phones from separate gallops, that have pitched the industry here into such forceful disrepute. But be very clear, it is conduct that has sickened civilised society to the core. You would imagine the sudden death of a beautiful creature would traumatise those who witness it. How breath-taking then that, for some, it seems only a matter of frivolity.
Is it innocent, for example, to imagine that Elliott might – at best – have been left contemplating a difficult phone call to Eddie O’Leary after Morgan, the dead Gigginstown seven-year-old he is pictured astride, has been lost during work on his gallops?
Why would even a single molecule of his being be inclined to sit on the corpse and pose smilingly, making a peace sign?
Likewise with, not just James, but those alongside him in a video that emerged yesterday, for whom the death of an unidentified horse on an as-yet-unidentified gallop seems only a matter of hilarity as he – too – climbs on top of the stricken creature.
These images shame the sport, conveying not simply an absence of respect for the horses in question but a staggering deafness to the most basic of human qualities we imagine to be obligatory for the work they do. Namely empathy for the animals in their care.
And you can’t but wonder now what other obscenities might be a simple Tweet away from further disgracing an industry so dependent upon tax-payers’ money? Is there more?
To that end, fixating upon what fine or ban or both might be coming Elliott’s way surely misses the point. The only pertinent question surely has to be how, in conscience, owners can ever again entrust their animals into the care of a man seemingly so flippant about losing one?
The British Horse Racing Authority did not hesitate to ban him from their shores and there’s been a noticeable slant in some UK media commentary since, depicting the industry in Ireland as a kind of rough, bucolic, unwashed environment in which the horses were treated, essentially, as farm animals.
That’s patently not the truth, but the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Authority finds itself under unprecedented pressure to deliver resounding leadership here.
They’ve been broadly unconvincing in tackling a narrative of failed drugs tests in the sport and the Viking Hoard fiasco which, incredibly, it seemed to take to finally register the wisdom of fitting CCTV cameras at racecourse stables everywhere.
This goes to another place though. The Elliott and James images affront public sensibilities on a level far too profound to be met with anything but withering action.
Gordon Elliott’s story was so glorious for so long, the son of a panel-beater with no equine connections building one of Europe’s great training empires from scratch.
With a single, imbecilic act, he may have lost it all.