The shocking image of the Irish racing trainer Gordon Elliott posing for a photograph atop a dead horse prompted justifiable revulsion earlier this year. The question raised by Panorama: The Dark Side of Horse Racing (BBC One, Monday) is whether the gruesome selfie was a one-off or indicative of a wider culture within the industry.
The investigative series’ reporter Darragh MacIntyre prefaces his forensic exploration of the treatment of horses within Irish and British racing by saying that he grew up in Kildare, the spiritual home of Irish racing. But it is hard to think of the sport as any sort of beacon as he reveals that most of the racehorses slaughtered in British abattoirs since 2019 had been shipped there across the Irish Sea.
Videos secured by the animal-rights group Animal Aid, of horses being led to their deaths at a UK abattoir, are chilling. One horse snorts in distress as another is killed in plain view. A veterinary expert, Hannah Donovan, points out the obvious, saying this is "not a humane process". "The bottom line is these horses, if they are to be euthanised, could and should be euthanised at home," she continues. "Simple as that."
Three horses that Elliott trained at his Co Meath stables had ended up at the slaughterhouse. He tells Panorama: “None of those animals were sent by me to the abattoir.” Two of the animals, High Expectations and Kiss Me Kayf, were, he says, sent to a horse dealer “to be rehomed if possible – and, if not, to be humanely euthanised in line with the regulations”.
Footage from the slaughterhouse is stomach-turning even though the truly explicit sequences are not aired. Horse Racing Ireland, the sport's governing body, says it places huge importance on the welfare of the people and horses in the industry. It did not respond to Panorama's queries about the seemingly high number of racehorses being slaughtered.
The Dark Side of Horse Racing raises questions about our attitudes towards animal welfare. Why are so many horses from Ireland shipped to Britain for slaughter? And why haven’t more industry figures here stepped forward to condemn the practice? Is it a conspiracy of silence or mere indifference?
“I can understand why people are attracted to racing, because I was attracted to it myself,” says Dene Stansall of Animal Aid. “But because of the poor welfare record, the number of horses dying, being killed in slaughterhouses, I can no longer support that. And I think a lot of the public will feel the same way.”