A prominent Irish horse trainer was suspended from racing in Britain on Tuesday after a photograph emerged of him sitting on a dead horse, smiling and talking on his cellphone.
The British Horseracing Authority, which issued the ban, said it was “appalled” at the image of the trainer, Gordon Elliott, that began to circulate on social media over the weekend and vowed to investigate. Irish racing officials, who issued Elliott’s license, said they would hold a hearing on the matter on Friday. A leading betting company that sponsors Elliott ended its association with him, and a top stable said it was removing its horses from his care.
Then, on Tuesday, a video emerged of an amateur jockey who has worked with Elliott sitting on a different dead horse.
Elliott, 42, has won the last two runnings of the Grand National, a steeplechase, with Tiger Roll and twice had the most wins at the Cheltenham Festival, the most prestigious week of jump racing in Britain.
Elliott acknowledged on Sunday that the photograph of him that has circulated on social media since Saturday is real. In the image, he is sitting astride a dead horse, talking on his phone and flashing a V sign at the camera.
“I apologize profoundly for any offense that this photo has caused,” Elliott said in a statement. “The welfare of each and every horse under my care is paramount.”
Elliott said the photo was taken “some time ago.” In his apology, he said the horse had died of a heart attack during a workout. “I received a call and without thinking sat down to take it,” he said. The hand gesture, he claimed, was an indication for a member of his training team not to interrupt him until he was finished. He insisted the photograph was not “callous and staged.”
His suspension in Britain will last until the investigation by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board is complete.
Horse racing is among the world’s oldest sports and is celebrated globally with iconic events such as Britain’s Grand National, Australia’s Melbourne Cup and America’s Kentucky Derby. But as animal rights activists have raised awareness on how the sport’s athletes — its horses — are treated, the sport has regularly found itself on the defensive.
The photograph of Elliott prompted outrage and dismay, both from racing enthusiasts and those who object to the sport, as well as from jockeys and Elliott’s fellow trainers. Peter Scudamore, a retired champion jockey, told the BBC that the photo “was an act of crass stupidity.”
“It is just such an appalling image, and I’m very sad about it,” he said.
“I thought it had to be a fake,” a former jockey, Mick Fitzgerald, said on Sky Sports. “I felt so sad. The No. 1 thing we have to get out to everybody is how much we care about these horses. It is so important.”
Cheveley Park Stud, a leading breeding and racing operation, said it would remove the eight horses it has under Elliott’s care, including several major contenders for the Cheltenham Festival this month.
Betfair, a sports betting company for which Elliott had been an ambassador, severed its ties with him. “While we recognize that Gordon deeply regrets and apologized unreservedly for his poor judgment,” the company said, “we have decided to discontinue our association with Gordon with immediate effect.”
In the aftermath of the Elliott controversy, a new video began circulating on social media of an Irish amateur jockey, Rob James, climbing onto a dead horse to off-camera laughter. The Irish racing authorities quickly began an investigation into that case as well.
James apologized for the video, which he said was from 2016. “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,” he told The Irish Field. “I have caused embarrassment to my employers, my family and most importantly the sport I love.”
James won a major race for amateur riders at last year’s Cheltenham Festival on Milan Native, a horse trained by Elliott.