The depth of the hole that racing is in right now can be measured by the upcoming Cheltenham festival suddenly seeming almost irrelevant.
Having to fight for your reputation makes fighting out the finish of any race beside the point.
Cheltenham 2020 turned into a lightening-rod issue for wider anxiety about the pandemic. But the 2021 festival that starts on Tuesday week promises to focus public attention on the nature of the sport itself.
Widespread revulsion at the photograph of Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead racehorse was a visceral reaction to contemptuous behaviour by one of racing's most high-profile figures. Elliott's behaviour was crass, distasteful, insensitive, indefensible and hugely stupid. The fact it wasn't strictly speaking cruel has become a largely superfluous distinction. It looked dreadful and such appearances count more than ever.
They count because fundamental to animal sports is public trust, that care of the creatures at the centre of it all is paramount. If that trust is breached the implications are huge. Damage to the standing of greyhound racing in recent years is stark evidence of that.
Elliott is facing a regulatory hearing on Friday as to whether or not he has damaged the reputation of racing. Since he has already admitted his actions and apologised profusely it is a largely academic exercise. The scale of reaction to his “moment of madness” is unprecedented. Racing’s reputation has taken a battering. All that’s left is to determine his penalty.
The decision of Britain's racing authorities to impose an interim ban on Elliott runners there appears to largely force the hand of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board towards an all but inevitable suspension.
Inevitably, some within the sport will argue discreetly that the furore surrounding Elliott in particular is only about optics
However, previous assurances of the Elliott case being a grim once-off look hollow on the back of more images emerging on Tuesday of jockey Rob James engaging in uncannily similar behaviour with another dead racehorse.
Video of James sitting on a racehorse that had died due to a heart attack during exercise, reportedly in 2016, contains disquieting echoes of the same disturbing perspective towards a stricken animal.
Taken together the images smack of a squalid attitude that has rocked racing to its foundations and reverberated far beyond the sport’s confines. Irish racing has never been under such a spotlight and can’t afford to obey any defensive instincts it is often prone to.
The reflex to circle the wagons and ride it out won’t do.
Inevitably, some within the sport will argue discreetly that the furore surrounding Elliott in particular is only about optics and that no specific welfare problem occurred. Stupidity isn’t a crime and the impact on Elliott has been dramatic already.
There is also private grumbling about the British Horseracing Authority's (BHA) unilateral action against the trainer, a move always likely to prompt resentments rarely far from the surface in Ireland at any perceived cross-channel high-handedness.
The argument goes that there hasn't been similar outrage about issues such as the continuing controversy involving British racing's greatest benefactor, Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, which is about far more than appearances. Neither has there been any BHA rush to act swiftly in relation to the treatment of jockey Bryony Frost by some of her colleagues.
Racing and public funding
Such a tack ignores how racing’s future is still wrapped up in public trust about horses being treated properly, professionally and with respect. That is fundamental in every jurisdiction but especially so in Ireland.
Maintaining its reputation, and being seen to do everything to do so, is in the sector's own self-interest
Irish racing will get €76.8 million in public funding this year, the latest instalment in two decades of State support through the Horse & Greyhound Fund.
It reflects how no other country has more wrapped up in racing, whether in terms of thousands of rural jobs, €2 billion of turnover per year, or the status that sustained success of Irish horses worldwide supplies.
Maintaining its reputation, and being seen to do everything to do so, is in the sector’s own self-interest. Underpinning everything is trust and in return for State cash the public is entitled to expect nothing but the best.
It bears repeating now more than ever that in the overwhelming majority of cases that best is delivered by thousands of expert horse people in Ireland every day of the week. As Horse Racing Ireland has said, such images do a disservice to them.
Many casual racing fans may only tune into racing during Cheltenham. Others remain entirely immune to its attraction. The reality is, however, that no knowledge of the form book is required for huge swathes of the public to recoil from what they don’t like.
Such social contracts are intangible, often only becoming distinct once they’re threatened. It’s why appearances really count. For racing right now they count with a vengeance, much more so than the outcome of any race in Cheltenham .