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A well-known Irish horse trainer was suspended from racing in the UK on Tuesday after a photo emerged of him sitting on a dead horse, smiling and talking on his cell phone.
The UK Horse Racing Authority, which put the ban in place, said it was “appalled” by the picture of trainer Gordon Elliott, who started spreading on social media over the weekend and vowed to investigate. The Irish race directors who issued Elliott’s license said they would hold a hearing on the matter on Friday. A leading betting company that Elliott sponsors ended their partnership with him, and a top stable said it was taking their horses out of their care.
Then, on Tuesday, a video came out of an amateur jockey working with Elliott on another dead horse.
Elliott, 42, has won the last two races of the Grand National, an obstacle race, with Tiger Roll and has twice the most wins at the Cheltenham Festival, Britain’s most prestigious week of jumping.
Elliott admitted on Sunday that the photo of him, which has been circulating on social media since Saturday, is real. In the picture he is sitting astride a dead horse, talking on the phone and flashing a V-sign into the camera.
“I deeply apologize for any criminal offense this photo caused,” Elliott said in a statement. “The well-being of every single horse I look after is of the utmost importance.”
Elliott said the photo was taken “some time ago”. In his apology, he said the horse died of a heart attack while exercising. “I received a call and sat down without thinking to answer it,” he said. The hand gesture was an indication for a member of his training team not to interrupt him until he was finished. He insisted that the photo was not “callous and staged”.
His suspension in the UK will continue pending investigation by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.
Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world and is celebrated worldwide with cult events such as the British Grand National, the Australian Melbourne Cup and the American Kentucky Derby. With animal rights activists raising awareness of how the sport’s athletes – its horses – are treated, the sport is regularly on the defensive.
The photo of Elliott sparked outrage and dismay, both from racing enthusiasts and opponents of the sport, as well as from jockeys and Elliott’s coaching colleagues. Peter Scudamore, a retired champion jockey, told the BBC that the photo “was an act of blatant stupidity”.
“It’s just such a horrific picture and I’m very sad about it,” he said.
“I thought it must be a fake,” said a former jockey, Mick Fitzgerald, on Sky Sports. “I was so sad. The number 1 we need to share with everyone is how much we care about these horses. It is so important. “
Cheveley Park Stud, a leading breeding and racing company, said it would remove the eight horses it has under Elliott’s care, including several lead candidates for the Cheltenham Festival this month.
Betfair, a sports betting company for which Elliott had been ambassador, severed ties with him. “While we recognize that Gordon deeply regrets his poor judgment and apologizes wholeheartedly,” the company said, “we have decided to end our relationship with Gordon with immediate effect.”
Following the Elliott controversy, a new video was posted on social media of an Irish amateur jockey, Rob James, climbing a dead horse to laugh off-camera. The Irish racing authorities also quickly opened an investigation into this case.
James apologized for the video he said was made in 2016. “Trying to defend my stupidity would continue to insult and hurt the many loyal people who have supported me throughout my career,” he told The Irish Field. “I’ve embarrassed my employers, my family, and most of all the sport I love.”
James won a major amateur rider race at the Cheltenham Festival last year on the Milan Native, a horse trained by Elliott.