April 12, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Flogging the trainer of a dead horse

They say you shouldn’t flog a dead horse. You shouldn’t sit on one either. If you must, you certainly shouldn’t get your picture taken. If you do, it will circulate on social media and millions of keyboard warriors will go out of their way to be offended.

You won’t have offended the horse, of course. Because, well … it’s dead. And anyway horses are not easily offended.

Many critics of trainer Gordon Elliot have said he was being disrespectful to the  horse – Michael O’Leary’s Morgan, apparently – when he was photographed seated on its corpse.

How do you respect or disrespect a horse? You can raise your hat, bow low and address it as Your Lordship. It won’t be impressed. You can laugh in its face, call it a gurrier and say its mother was the most brazen little filly that ever trotted through The Monto. The horse will be unmoved.

Gordon Elliot says he is deeply sorry for this moment of madness. I’ll bet he is. He also says he will spend the rest of his life regretting the error. I’m sure that is also true, but he really shouldn’t have to. The picture was unpleasant, crass, insensitive, but Gordon Elliot did not kill the horse or, indeed, harm it in any way.

By all accounts, he takes exceptionally good care of the horses in his charge and nothing in that picture proves otherwise.

The Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, in a statement that was intended to be supportive of Mr Elliot, declared: “As one of our most prominent and successful members, Gordon has a duty of care to his horses and this great sport but he has let down both himself and horse racing.”

The Association,  like many of Mr Elliot’s critics, is conflating two issues. The trainer may have let down himself and horse racing but that has no bearing on his duty of care. There has not been even the hint of an allegation that Mr Elliot is careless about the welfare of the living horses in his stables. It is not possible to care for the dead ones.

I suspect that what particularly worries the Trainers Association is the suggestion that State funding for horse racing might be cut because of this incident.

Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy wants to question Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue about this at the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture.

He said the committee should look into funding “to ensure that the substantial level of investment by Government … is matched by ever-improving animal welfare standards”.

The TD said the “highest animal welfare standards” must be in place and those standards need to be “continually monitored and enforced”.

The implication of those comments is that “highest animal welfare standards” are not being maintained or, at least, that there is some reason to fear they are slipping.

Mr McConalogue drew the same implication from the picture. “The photograph is not reflective of the highest animal welfare standards we demand for the sector,” said the minister.

In truth, the picture is not reflective of anything to do with animal welfare. Mr Elliot sat on a dead horse, an action which makes me wonder about his commonsense, but which has absolutely no bearing on how he does his job.

The record shows that he does it extremely well – if he didn’t look after his horses he would not have had so many winners.

Since the Elliot row blew up, pictures have also appeared of top amateur jockey Rob James similarly seated on a dead horse.

He, too, has issued profuse apologies. But, while it may have been a moment of madness, his actions suggest to me that people in the horse industry are less sentimental about the animals than the public at large.

And that’s not surprising. The same goes for vets, farmers and people who work in a zoo. They tend diligently to the animals in their care. But they recognise, too, that these are animals and don’t share most human emotions.

They don’t take offence, they never feel insulted and they don’t care about their legacy.

At the risk of being disrespectful, let me recall what was said of that famous equine television personality, Mr Ed: “A horse is a horse, of course, of course … and no one can talk to a horse of course.”

Sound advice, particularly when the horse is dead.

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