Three members of the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Board referral committee will meet via Zoom at 9.30am. M. From Friday to attempt what is almost certainly an impossible task.
Since Saturday morning, millions of people in Ireland, Great Britain and around the world have seen the grotesque image of coach Gordon Elliott astride a galloping dead horse. It is the committee’s job to determine to what extent its action, and the fact that it was widely recorded and published more than a year later, was “detrimental … to the good reputation of horse racing.” Then he must mete out a fair and proportionate punishment on one of the sport’s most famous and successful coaches.
The panel has no significant precedents on which it can rely as it considers its decision. Racing has not seen a case of “discredit” of this magnitude in the era of social networks. The incident in 2017 when Davy Russell hit his mount on the head before a race was minor compared to its reach.
What the panel will recall, however, is that the initial wave of anger over Russell’s coup was magnified when the case’s first hearing decided that a warning was punishment enough. A hasty rethinking led to the sanction being raised to a four-day ban, amid complaints from the rider about “unacceptable and shameful” media coverage.
The image of Elliott on the corpse of one of his horses caused widespread revulsion both in and out of racing, and the damage it has done to the sport’s “good reputation” is incalculable. On that basis, it could be argued that the sanction should also be of similar magnitude: a ban on the sport that would effectively spell the end of Elliott’s career.
A counterargument is that this would also threaten the livelihoods of dozens of stable employees in Elliott’s yard if he is kicked out of the business, penalizing them all for their self-admitted “moment of insanity.” The devastating effect of an extended ban on Elliott himself must also be recognized.
The final problem for the panel, perhaps, is that a “discrediting” charge is not fit for purpose in an age when such a shocking image can be viewed by millions in a matter of hours, and then endlessly relived as a stick with which the sport can be surpassed forever. If the total damage cannot be assessed effectively, how can a sanction be provided?
No one is likely to be satisfied with the outcome of Friday’s hearing. Not the casual browsers on social media who were shocked and disgusted to see a dead racehorse treated with such casual contempt. Nor could the thousands of employees at racing stables, in Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere, who care deeply about their horses and could rightly add a deep sense of betrayal to their dislike of Elliott’s actions.
No penalty can adequately reflect, or undo, the damage Elliott has done to the sport that created it. That’s something he, and everyone who works or follows racing, will have to live with once the decision is made on Friday.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism