RacingOdds and Sods

Racing must face up to fundamental issues about managing animals’ lifespans

Visceral public response to RTÉ programme prompts urgent questions about numbers of thoroughbreds going to abattoir

Protestors tied ribbons on the gates of Shannonside Foods Ltd in Straffan, Co Kildare following scenes shown on RTÉ Investigates. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Public revulsion at the scenes uncovered last week by RTÉ Investigates in Ireland’s sole equine abbatoir has thrown up fundamental questions for Irish racing and bloodstock, not least of which is the sustainability of industry practices that last year saw more than 1,400 thoroughbreds go through the Shannonside Foods Ltd plant in Straffan.

The thrust of the RTÉ programme centered on failures of regulation within the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine (DAFM). But racing was still front and centre in a squalid story for which no expertise was required to recognise shocking cruelty inflicted on animals that really do occupy a singular position in the public consciousness.

So much was evident in the Minister for Finance Michael McGrath’s response to questions in the Dáil about the programme, where he said how appalled he was by the mistreatment of these beautiful animals. It was a notable piece of language, awkward in a sense, since beauty shouldn’t be a factor in animal welfare, but a reflection of how we’re disposed towards aesthetics.

In contrast, the slaughter of animals is a resolutely grim business. It can also be necessary in certain circumstances. Those vary culturally. The appetite for horse meat in Italy and Spain presumably means far less scruples there when differentiating between bloodstock and livestock. Mr McGrath’s attitude might even be viewed there as indulgent.


Nevertheless, there are standards for carrying out ugly work and Shannonside fell woefully short of them. Operations are suspended at the plant as investigations are carried out by DAFM and the Gardai amid widespread calls for the abattoir to be closed completely. It’s an understandable impulse but one that risks out of sight, out of mind.

Almost two decades worth of evidence in the United States, where equine abattoirs have effectively been closed, is of massive traffic of horses for slaughter to Mexico and Canada. That the grisly business has been displaced doesn’t mean it has disappeared, just that it is being carried out elsewhere.

Logic dictates that a correctly run and properly supervised abattoir for horses is necessary in this jurisdiction. It’s also logical to expect that some thoroughbreds will end up being slaughtered at such a facility. But given visceral public attitudes, there’s no strategic coherence to the racing and breeding industries in the sort of numbers that went through Straffan last year.

Even if abattoirs are models of care and professionalism, they shouldn’t be necessary for the vast majority of thoroughbreds. Different criteria do apply. It might prompt charges of hypocrisy from those outraged by some standards applied to food production, but animals produced for what is essentially an entertainment business are clearly viewed otherwise.

Considering that business is rooted in an intangible, yet still very relevant, social license means preserving it is of fundamental self-interest.

Irish racing’s reputation in the face of persistent controversy and shortcomings in both governance and regulation has been regularly knocked over the last decade. The details of much of it has gone above the heads of many people because it’s complicated. There’s nothing impenetrable about cruelty. Having to try to explain yourself means you’ve lost already.

It demands the racing and breeding sectors have a meaningful examination of the extent of its duty of care to animals after their careers are over. A copy and paste of the last PR-coated press release won’t do. Riding it out until the public spotlight switches elsewhere is a default position for many within the sport but it’s only postponing an inevitable reckoning.

It’s only three years since we were here last on the back of a BBC Panorama documentary. That too showed up dangerous gaps in traceability and what can happen to horses once are they are discarded by their owners.

At some point, and even if it’s only from a view of commercial and reputational expediency, a practical and systemic way of managing the entire lifespans of the animals produced must be found.

The best advice on how to euthanise a horse if it’s necessary is to do what’s required professionally in the animal’s familiar surroundings to rule out as much upset as possible. That costs a few hundred euro in terms of vets and transporting the carcass. Clearly, some people are not prepared to pay out. This is a problem that requires an urgent solution.

On the back of the Panorama programme, Horse Racing Ireland examined a proposition called a “Horse Purse”. It’s a concept where a sum of money is linked to individual equine passports to ensure proper end-of-life care. The theory is that a choice between cost and doing the right thing is removed.

The logistical difficulties of that are obvious, given the numbers involved, how the funding is raised, and how, unlike cattle and pigs, most horses move around and change hands multiple times during their lives. French racing has examined the idea too, but HRI concluded it wasn’t a runner here.

That may be correct. As we’ve seen, if there’s a system there will be people prepared to try to exploit it. But we’ve also seen public outrage and that means doing nothing is not an option.

Something for the Weekend

Friday’s Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot is typically competitive but FOREVER BLUE (5.05) returned to action with a smooth success at Haydock two weeks ago and progressive for the in-form Ralph Beckett team.

LONDON CITY (4.05) is the sole three-year-old in tomorrow’s Limerick feature, the Listed Martin Molony Stakes. The regally bred son of Justify and Winter showed a great attitude at York last time out and is well entered up in better quality races.