RacingOdds and Sods

RTÉ Investigates: Horrifying scenes of horse cruelty shows racing needs to act

Although the racing industry was not implicated in any wrongdoing, it would benefit from taking more active steps to uphold public confidence in welfare standards

An RTÉ investigation raced serious questions about practices in the horse meat market. Racing authorities would do well to reassure the public about its own commitment to animal welfare. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Scenes uncovered through secret filming by the RTÉ Investigates team at Ireland’s only licensed equine abattoir, Shannonside Foods Ltd in Straffan, Co Kildare, and broadcast on Wednesday night, were horrifying. They included one stricken animal, unable to get off the ground, being left lying for hours before being put out of its misery. An already grim business looked appalling.

For most of us it was a first exposure to the word “lairage”, a location where animals are held before slaughter. This one was a shed metres away from the abattoir. Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM) officials apparently monitor the abattoir but not the lairage. It begs the question “why not?”: officials are meant to be able go anywhere to prevent welfare abuses.

It is just one of a long list of questions that need to be addressed by the department. And in the context of a Europe-wide exploitation of gaps in the horse meat market, from which criminals are clearly profiting, it’s not just Ireland’s State authorities with ground to make up in terms of providing a sufficient deterrent.

Department of Agriculture investigation to examine the supply of horses for slaughterOpens in new window ]

The fact that horse meat is more valuable when passed fit for human consumption has produced a strong motivation for lucrative identity fraud with falsification of passports and animals implanted with more than one more microchip. Criminals unscrupulously driving various coaches and horses through the system looks to be a depressingly straightforward exercise.


Much of the focus from the RTÉ investigation was on the DAFM and bureaucratic shortcomings both here and abroad. Investigations are continuing. A lot of the animals shown were not thoroughbreds. But any relief the racing industry might feel at not being identified in specific wrongdoing would be shortsighted.

Horse Racing Ireland claim systems for identifying thoroughbreds are ‘second to none’Opens in new window ]

A total of 1,428 thoroughbreds went through Shannonside Foods Ltd last year, presumably through the same lairage. That’s about two-thirds of the total number of equines slaughtered there in 2023. RTÉ referenced three trainers – Philip Rothwell, Luke Comer, and “Shark” Hanlon – as having had horses they either trained or owned ending up in the Shannonside plant.

It is a bleak reality but a reality, nonetheless, that sometimes animals need to be euthanised. Whether because of serious injury, horses not being apt for a change of career or simply due to the risk of neglect being too great, that can be the most suitable option. But it must be the final option and, when necessary, carried out properly. Standards need to be guaranteed. They fell woefully short here.

Another reality is that no degree of veterinary expertise is required to recognise cruelty. Attempting to make distinctions in the context of images such as the ones uncovered by RTÉ is a thankless task. In the circumstances, racing is automatically on the back foot.

The same applied after a 2021 BBC Panorama investigation that threw up similarly difficult ethical dilemmas regarding the extent of the duty of care in a sector that’s the biggest foal producer in Europe, has more than 10,000 horses in training, boasts that it’s worth €2.5 billion a year, and is receiving €76 million of State funding in 2024.

All those black and white statistics are ultimately reliant on maintaining the sport and industry’s social contract. It’s an imprecise concept that some might dismiss as jargon, but it is at the core of public legitimacy when it comes to animal sports. There may have been no instances of wrongdoing by people connected with racing in the RTÉ investigation but there is an inevitable reputational cost.

Since so much is wrapped up in this contract it can sometimes beggar belief how slow racing is in striving to maintain it. Far too often the sector finds itself in reactive mode, appearing to reluctantly carry out steps in which it ought to be engaging proactively, through self-interest if nothing else.

That applied to the marathon process involved in trying to get Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board officials the jurisdiction to enter unlicensed premises and carry out drug testing and also to the installation of CCTV in racecourse stable yards on the back of the Viking Hoard “nobbled” controversy.

Full traceability of thoroughbreds throughout their lifespan has been an aspiration for many years and yet it remains frustratingly elusive. Improvements have occurred and the process towards a fully digital e-passport system is under way. But considering such traceability is in place for farm animals, it is remarkable how an industry that prides itself on being a world leader hasn’t yet been able to follow suit.

The capacity to track a thoroughbred throughout its life can be a fundamental element of reassuring the public that every effort is being made to ensure animal welfare standards are adhered to and a meaningful deterrent is in place to combat those prepared to break the rules. Progress has been made but it’s within racing’s abilities to speed it up significantly.

Such moves would be a pragmatic investment in public confidence in wider welfare standards. The scenes in Straffan also underlined why it would be the right thing to do.