'The most appalling bad taste': IHRB release full Gordon Elliott verdict

It details the evidence heard from Elliott, Henrietta Knight, Michael O’Leary, Noel Meade, and Denise Foster
'The most appalling bad taste': IHRB release full Gordon Elliott verdict

Trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The IHRB have releasd the full written decision on the Gordon Elliott case, after the trainer had his licence revoked for a year, with six months suspended.

The ban comes after a photo circulated on social media of him sitting on a dead horse and led to an "avalanche of complaints" to the sport's governing body in Ireland.

“The photograph shows the most appalling bad taste on the part of Mr Elliott," the judgement from the IHRB read.

“It demonstrates a complete absence of respect for the horse at a time when he still remains in his charge."

It also stated: "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".

Elliott agreed that his conduct was “disgraceful”, “horrific”, and ”wholly inappropriate and distasteful”, according to the ruling.

He must also pay costs of €15,000.

The ban started on March 9.

The full IHRB verdict reads as follows:

The Referrals Committee, Mr. Justice Raymond Groarke, Mr. N.B. Wachman and The Hon.

Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan convened at Naas Racecourse on Friday 5th March 2021 to consider the referral of Mr. Gordon Elliott (Trainer) following an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) investigation into an image circulating on social media which first came to the attention of the IHRB on Saturday 27th February 2021.

Mr. Ronan C. Kennedy, SC, outlined to the Referrals Committee the details of the IHRB investigation report which included a number of interviews, statements and details of an unannounced stable inspection at Cullentra House on Tuesday 2nd March 2021.

Evidence was heard from Mr. Elliott, Mr. Jim Fitzgerald, accountant, Mr. Gerard Kelly, veterinary surgeon, Ms. Henrietta Knight, owner representative, Mr. Michael O’Leary, owner, Mr. Noel Meade, Trainer, Dr. Jennifer Pugh, doctor and Mrs. Denise Foster, Trainer.

Written submissions from An Garda Síochána and Ms. Sharon Power, co-founder of Irish Horse Welfare Trust.

In his evidence, Mr. Elliott stated that he first became aware of an image circulating on social media prior to the last race at Fairyhouse on Saturday, 27th February. He said that he never knew such an image existed and was shocked by it and could not explain it as he was unaware that such a photograph was taken. Following internal discussions with his staff, Mr.

Elliott said he was able to identify the horse as Morgan who died of a heart aneurysm on his gallops in 2019 and he informed the IHRB of this on Monday, 1st March. He described his shame over the image and accepted that he had let his family, his staff and the sport of horseracing down and it was a moment he will regret for the rest of his life. He explained how he had no family background in horseracing or upbringing around animals but it was the love of animals and horses that got him to where he is today. He stated that anybody who knows him would confirm his love of horses. He added that in building his current facilities, he did so with the best interest of the horses in mind, building specific stables for horses with different needs, including outdoor paddocks and a horse swimming pool. 

He also outlined how he used three different veterinary surgeons, depending on the needs of the horses. Mr. Elliott recalled how he had to work hard for everything he has since leaving school at 16 and that over time he had purchased and developed his current base at Cullentra, where he now employs over 80 people and had 220 horses. He said that he prides himself on the care he provides for the horses in his care and that his staff, facilities and equipment are always presented immaculately. Mr. Elliott described his current situation as horrific and as the worst week of his life. He outlined some details of abuse that himself and his staff had received. He also provided some background to a number of false accounts of stories which had been circulating on social media relating to him and his personal life and other information that led to the involvement of An Garda Síochána both prior to 27th February 2021 and since.

In his evidence, Mr. Fitzgerald informed the panel of his work with Mr. Elliott as his accountant over the past eight years and furnished details of the financial situation of both Mr. Elliott and his business. He also outlined the financial benefit Mr. Elliott’s yard has on the local rural economy in surrounding areas such as Longwood and to local suppliers.

In his evidence, Mr. Kelly said that he began treating horses trained by Mr. Elliott in 2008 and described the horses that present to him as being extremely well looked after. He added that he never had any concerns for their welfare. He said that Mr. Elliott was a client who always considered the best interest of the horse and that their appearance would always be immaculate. He said that in 13 years working with Mr. Elliott he never saw any evidence of a lack of respect to horses under his care and he went beyond expectations by writing to thank the people who had looked after the horses while they were being treated.

Mr. Kelly concluded that the person he saw in the image was at odds with the person he had dealt with for 13 years.

In her evidence, Ms. Knight stated that her experience of bringing owners to Cullentra on numerous occasions was excellent. She explained that she had written a book about attention to detail and horse husbandry and that Mr. Elliott’s attention to detail is as good as she has witnessed. Ms. Knight said that this image was not true to character, he is not a man that makes fun of his horses and that there is always a wonderful atmosphere in his yard. In her opinion, Mr. Elliott is a person that has a great passion for his horses with a massive attention to detail.

In his evidence, Mr. O’Leary described his 15 year association with Mr. Elliott as an owner.

He stated that Irish racing has suffered reputational damage as a result of the image. He described his experience of the exemplary care that his horses were provided with by Mr.

Elliott. He added that in his opinion, he could confidently say it is a level of care and attention unmatched by any other National Hunt trainer in the country. Mr. O’Leary admitted to being shocked and surprised by the unacceptable behaviour in the image which he believed was out of character from a man who usually has to be consoled when informing owners of injuries or fatalities.

In his evidence, Mr. Meade said that in a moment of madness and stupidity Mr. Elliott made the most catastrophic mistake for which he could not turn back the clock. He said Mr. Elliott was a man who brought honour and glory to Ireland by winning races such as the Grand National and the Gold Cup in the same manner in which Vincent O’Brien, Dermot Weld, Aidan O’Brien and Willie Mullins had also done. He stated that Mr. Elliott was aware that he had let down the whole racing world and had already paid an enormous price for that.

In her evidence, Dr. Pugh outlined the background to her professional appointments with Mr. Elliott prior to and subsequent to 27th February 2021.

In her evidence, Mrs. Foster described her long term friendship with Mr. Elliott and how much of a boost he is to the local economy. She referenced the care and attention she has witnessed his horses get from both himself and his staff and his facilities would make any trainer jealous.

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.

Discussion

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 the Irish Horse Welfare Trust 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.

Sanction considerations

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.

Conclusion

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 9th March 2021.

The case was presented by Ronan Kennedy, SC, and Ms. Caoimhe Daly, BL, instructed by Ms, Cliodhna Guy, IHRB Head of Licensing, Legal and Compliance. Mr. Elliott was represented by Mr. Martin Hayden, SC, and Mr. Frank Crean, BL, instructed by Mr. Andrew Coonan of Coonan Cawley Solicitors, Naas, County Kildare.

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