Warning that closing Ireland’s only equine abattoir could result in irresponsible export of problem

Trainer Philip Rothwell left ‘hugely hurt’ after being included in RTÉ Investigates programme

Shannonside Foods finds itself at the centre of a horse slaughter controversy. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Horse Racing Ireland’s (HRI) top welfare official has warned that suggestions there shouldn’t be an abattoir in this country for processing equines could simply lead to an irresponsible exporting of the problem.

The Department of Agriculture confirmed on Sunday it has suspended operations at the Shannonside Foods Ltd facility in Straffan which is at the centre of investigations into mistreatment of horses.

Using secret filming, an RTÉ Investigates programme last week uncovered shocking scenes of animal welfare abuses at Ireland’s sole equine abattoir. The matter is being investigated by the department and the gardaí.

More than 1,400 thoroughbreds were slaughtered at Shannonside last year, about two-thirds of the total number of horses processed by the plant in 2023. It has provoked more debate about the sport’s duty in aftercare of horses bred for the industry after their racing careers are over.


HRI director of welfare & bloodstock John Osborne labelled last week’s footage as abhorrent and not reflective of the level of care given to horses in the vast majority of cases throughout the sport and industry.

Amid calls for Shannonside to be closed down and asked about the necessity for an abattoir facility in this country, Osborne noted the experience in the United States which has seen huge levels of horses being exported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.

“The American experience of no abattoir has possibly created a different problem and displacing the issues abroad is irresponsible,” he said. “However, we must find a better way. I am sure that this week will generate energy, ideas and momentum towards improving things.”

In the US, repeated legislative efforts to ban horse slaughter outright, as well as the transport and export of horses for slaughter, have failed. However, moves to bar agriculture authorities from inspecting slaughter plants have effectively shut down the sector in America.

Moreover, the result has meant large numbers of horses exported out of the country every year, mostly to Mexico and Canada.

Elsewhere, the continuing fallout from the RTÉ revelations has meant Co Wicklow trainer Philip Rothwell outline his dismay at being named in the programme.

RTÉ Investigates: Horrifying scenes of horse cruelty shows racing needs to actOpens in new window ]

Along with Shark Hanlon and Luke Comer, Rothwell was one of three trainers named in the investigation. He was the only one of three not to respond to queries from the programme-makers.

After saddling a winner at Downpatrick on Saturday, Rothwell said: “I’ve had a really tough week. I lost one of my best horses in training who got cast and broke a bone in his knee. I was put on RTÉ Investigates on Thursday and I’ve no idea why. A picture was taken off my promotional video on my website and put on RTÉ and I’ve no idea why.

“I’m hugely hurt over it. They [RTÉ] sent me a letter, but they sent a lot of trainers a letter and they listed out eight horses of mine that ended up there [Shannonside Foods] over the years. They were in my premises at one time.

“One was a mare that was with me 12 years ago and I haven’t seen her in 12 years. Four others that have had foals for breeders since — nothing got to do with me. Two of them I had sent to agents that could have been riding horses [for racehorses to riding]. I always send mine to agents to get a chance to be riding horses.

“I have never been there [Shannonside Foods] in my life. I didn’t comment on it and I don’t know why they took a picture of me off my own promotional video and put it up without my permission. I’m hugely hurt over it.

“I think everybody in racing knows that there is nobody that cares as much as I do, and I found it very difficult.”

Separately, Irish jockey Chris Hayes was out of luck in Sunday’s French Oaks, finishing out of the money in eighth on the Aga Khan’s hope Candala in the €1 million Prix De Diane at Chantilly.

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

The classic went to the local filly Sparkling Plenty who got the better of Survie in a close finish. Oisín Murphy’s mount Tamfana was third. The winner was ridden by French jockey Tony Piccone.

Aidan O’Brien will have just three runners on Tuesday’s opening day of Royal Ascot although they include the Group One pair Henry Longfellow and Unquestionable in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

However, O’Brien is already plotting much more long-term with his Derby winner City Of Troy who could take in a trip to Southwell in advance of a prospective tilt at the Breeders Cup Classic in November.

Next month’s Eclipse at Sandown is next for City Of Troy, followed by either the Juddmonte at York or Leopardstown’s Champion Stakes, before tackling dirt in the US. That rules out a tilt at the Travers in Saratoga in August.

“We had in our head, and we have spoken about it a lot, and was thinking that if we did go to Sandown then we could go to either York or Leopardstown and he could then do a prep in Southwell afterwards and then go on to America. The track at Southwell, we always felt it did us good when we went there with any type of horse. We’ve done it before with Giant’s Causeway and Declaration Of War and those horses. We just had in our head to go to America for a prep would change too much,” said O’Brien on Sunday.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column