Galloping down the home straight, seven-year-old Morgan was just six-and-a-half lengths behind the winning horse when he crossed the finishing line in fourth place. The going was good that day, as they say in the racing world.
Conditions at Wexford racecourse in Ireland were warm and mostly sunny as Morgan, who had been 5 to 4 favourite, sped along the two-mile course beneath jockey Davy Russell, surrounded by stunning views of the Irish Sea.
Certainly no one could have anticipated that the BoyleSports Beginners Chase on June 19, 2019, would be the talented young gelding’s last race.
But just weeks later, Morgan suffered a fatal heart aneurysm and collapsed while training. And while the racehorse’s life wasn’t long enough for him to have made a big name for himself, it was what happened to him in the moments after death that has now shaken the racing world to its core.
Morgan is the horse seen in a horrifying photograph which began circulating on social media at the weekend. It shows multi-millionaire trainer Gordon Elliott casually sitting on the animal’s lifeless body on the gallops at his state-of-the-art equestrian training facilities, holding a mobile phone to his ear with one hand and making a victory sign with the other while grinning at the camera.
Irish racehorse trainer Gordon Elliott sitting astride a dead horse while talking on his phone
Amid a storm of controversy that continues to grow apace, that appalling image has sparked widespread condemnation in the racing world, and three-time Grand National winning Elliott has been banned from racing in Britain by the British Horseracing Authority while regulatory authorities in Ireland investigate the incident.
Betfair has also ended Elliott’s lucrative ‘ambassador’ role for the betting firm, saying that ‘his actions are completely at odds with the values of the Betfair brand’. A leading stud has already stated that it is withdrawing all eight of its horses from the trainer’s world-class Cullentra House Stables in County Meath in Ireland.
Above all, the incident has also raised huge concerns about equine welfare within the multi-billion-pound racing industry, particularly given that just a day after the Elliott photo appeared, video footage emerged of jockey Rob James, who won at Cheltenham Festival in 2020 on an Elliott-trained horse, jumping onto another dead horse.
Industry insiders fear that both incidents have caused untold damage to racing’s already fragile reputation. Concerns have been rife for years about the ill-treatment of animals, particularly during events such as the Grand National where a white tent, erected so that injured horses can be put to death out of sight of the crowds, has become a sinister sight in recent years.
Jockey Rob James sits astride another dead horse in footage widely circulated on social media
While the racing world has fought to raise its reputation, insisting that the highest standards of compassion and care are maintained when training horses, Elliott’s photograph and James’s video clearly suggests otherwise and may well have undone years of work to convince the public of the ‘caring’ face of the sport.
More, in a moment, of James’s behaviour and his apology. For while 43-year-old Elliott is being publicly vilified for what he describes as ‘a moment of madness’, the hugely successful trainer is receiving support from a most unlikely quarter — the dead animals’s owner.
He is none other than Ryanair’s flamboyant chief executive Michael O’Leary. Gigginstown House Stud, which is run by O’Leary and his brother Eddie, is believed to make up around 40 per cent of the 200 or so animals trained by Elliott, including Tiger Roll, the bay gelding who has twice won the Grand National.
But despite the abhorrent treatment meted out, post mortem, to the horse he bought at auction as a three year old for 170,000 euros, O’Leary appears to be in an extraordinarily forgiving mood.
In a statement released by the Ryanair press office yesterday, the budget airline tycoon said: ‘We accept that this photograph was a grievous but momentary lapse of judgment by Gordon, and not in keeping with our experience of his concern for, and attention to, the welfare of our horses.
Homecoming of 2018 Randox Health Aintree Grand National Winner Tiger Roll, with owner Anita O’Leary (left) and trainer Gordon Elliott (right)
‘We all make mistakes and what is important is that we learn from them and ensure we do not repeat them. We accept Gordon’s sincere, profound and unreserved apology and we will continue to support him and his team at Cullentra as they work to recover from this deeply regrettable incident.’
Others have not been so understanding. Despite releasing a statement saying that they would ‘await the official outcome of the investigation by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’, Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket in Cambridgeshire announced on Monday that they were moving their eight horses from Cullentra House to other trainers.
With his future as a trainer now hanging in the balance, Elliott himself has also ‘apologised profoundly’ for his behaviour but his attempt to explain how the image came about has been met with derision online.
‘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,’ he said in a statement in which he stated that the horse had died of ‘an apparent heart attack’ on the gallops.
He added: ‘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.’
Elliott’s stock has soared thanks to Tiger Roll’s successive victories in the Grand National
Whatever the reasons for his behaviour, Elliott believes he will pay a heavy price. In an interview with the Racing Post on Monday he spoke of ‘a moment of madness that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life paying for’.
As one of the biggest names in racing, his fall from grace has been particularly hard. His rise to the top of racing had been remarkable given that he was not born into a racing family. Elliott is the son of a panel beater from County Meath who began his career as a 13-year-old schoolboy working for trainer Tony Martin at weekends and during the holidays. He went on to get his amateur jockey’s licence at 16.
According to Elliott’s own website, he hung up his riding boots in 2005, got his trainer’s licence in 2006 and in 2007 became the youngest ever trainer of a Grand National winner when Silver Birch took first place.
He has since gone on to become one of the most celebrated sporting figures in Britain and Ireland. He has never married although he got engaged to long-term girlfriend and former Irish point-to-point champion Annie Bowles in 2010.
More recently he has been linked to Kate Harrington, daughter of Gold Cup-winning trainer Jessica Harrington.
James (fourth right, centre) seen celebrating winning Riders Handicap Chase at Cheltenham
On Sunday, Elliott said he sat on the horse ‘without thinking’ and was ‘gesturing to wait’
Given his huge success in such a highly competitive sport, speculation is rife within the industry that the release of the photograph of him sitting on Morgan — just two weeks before the Cheltenham Gold Cup and barely a month before the Grand National — was a deliberate ploy by ‘persons unknown’ to cause maximum damage to Elliott.
For in a sport driven by money and gambling, banning him from racing will no doubt infuriate those owners who entrusted their horses into his care and hoped to see them win.
As to who took the photograph and who released it, the Mail understands that it was circulated on WhatsApp within a small circle at Cullentra before a screenshot of it was made and kept for more than a year and a half. Whoever released it clearly intended to hurt Elliott, who is likely to have made enemies during his meteoric rise to the top.
Its release came days after the circulation on WhatsApp of video footage showing Elliott and his friends apparently drinking in a makeshift bar set up at his stables to get around Covid-19 restrictions. While the Irish Gardai say they are aware of the video and are looking into it, Elliott claims that it was taken at the same time as Cheltenham last year, when Irish pubs were still open.
Ruby Walsh (left) said the image of Elliott is ‘indefensible’ and mad his ‘angry’ and ’embarrased’
But it is the image of Elliott sitting on Morgan that has caused the most outrage. Yesterday, a member of another racehorse training family told me that the photograph had ‘blown my mind’. He said: ‘When you’ve spent time with them and put your heart and soul into them and spend endless days with them, it is heartbreaking to lose a horse.
‘I’ve seen stable lads and girls sobbing when the worst happens. It’s incomprehensible that someone would behave like this to an animal and show such utter disrespect.
‘The worst thing is that so much work has been done to gain the trust of the public in terms of high levels of welfare in horse racing. This one image has blown that apart.’ Eight-time champion jump jockey Peter Scudamore said the photo was ‘an act of crass stupidity’.
The 62-year-old added: ‘It just hit the bottom of my stomach. I think everybody in racing I know hoped it was fake, and then there was a slow realisation that it’s not fake. It’s desperate sadness on so many fronts. It is just such an appalling image and I’m very sad about it.’
Scudamore suggested that having done something ‘crass and stupid’, Elliott ‘should be made to devote time and resources to an equine charity’.
The Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham and Aintree racecourses, said: ‘Clearly this is totally unacceptable and not reflective of the respect and care that racehorses receive from participants in our sport. The anger and upset across racing says it all.’
Great British Racing, the promotional body of British racing, said: ‘Respect for our horses is at the heart of everything that we stand for in British racing and the shocking image is counter to that and betrays the work of thousands of people loving and caring for our horses on a daily basis — we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.’
The charity PETA said that the racing industry viewed animals ‘not as sentient beings but as wind-up toys’.
Elise Allen, the charity’s UK director, added: ‘The true outrage is that fit, healthy horses are dying during training and on racetracks in the first place.’
Video footage of jockey Rob James laughing and jumping onto the back of a dead horse has further fuelled fears about how horses bred for racing are being treated.
James, who last year won the Kim Muir at Cheltenham on Milan Native, a horse owned by Michael O’Leary and trained by Gordon Elliott, was meant to ride at the 5.20 at Gowran Park, County Kilkenny yesterday but withdrew.
Instead he was apologising for his ‘wholly inappropriate’ actions, admitting being ‘disrespectful to a five-year-old mare, who unfortunately suffered a sudden cardiac arrest while at exercise earlier that morning, April 30, 2016’.
James added that ‘to try defending my stupidity at the time would add further insult and hurt to the many loyal people that have supported me during my career. I have caused embarrassment to my employers, my family and most importantly the sport I love.
‘I am heartbroken by the damage I have caused and will do my best to try and make amends.’
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board has given no indication when a disciplinary hearing might be held into Elliott’s behaviour. It is also investigating the video footage featuring Rob James.
The outpouring of revulsion at both is a reminder of the extent of the affection in which horses are held by the public. During the four years that Morgan was owned by Michael O’Leary, he earned £61,162 for his billionaire owner — a mere fraction of what it cost to buy and to train him.
In death, he has achieved something very different. He has proved that those who fail to show respect to the magnificent beasts in their care will suffer consequences for damaging the reputation of the so-called sport of kings.