Tipping Point: Elliott and Mahon cases tell us all about the power of the picture

New IHRB powers vital in maintaining public confidence in racing and breeding

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A picture may be worth a thousand words but one person entitled to believe an image is capable of provoking a lot more than that is Gordon Elliott.

In March, Elliott, one of the country’s top trainers, was hit with a one-year licence suspension, with six months of it suspended, over a notorious image of him sitting on a dead horse. Racing’s authorities correctly concluded it brought racing’s reputation into disrepute.

It was a furore that transfixed the country and beyond. Elliott found himself at the centre of a public maelstrom with bitter disagreement about what an appropriate penalty should be for what many still believe was ultimately a transgression of taste.

What it wasn’t was an animal welfare issue. Try as Elliott’s most fervent critics did to infer brutality, and what the downloaded social media image might somehow be reflective of, there was no suggestion of cruelty.

Mahon, who has indicated he will appeal the four-year suspension, can continue to work in racing

It was a crass picture taken of an unfortunate animal that had died of a heart aneurysm and whose carcass was about to be removed. Elliott might have appeared blase about the horse in death but no one disputed the trainer’s professional care of the animal while he was alive.

So the contrast in the level of public opprobrium between that and how another trainer, Stephen Mahon, lost his licence for four years last week over offences that included animal neglect makes a convincing argument for the power of the picture.

There were photographs taken by Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) officials during the course of two inspections at Mahon’s rented premises in Co Galway in April. Judged by details in the IHRB report released on Thursday they would make for grisly viewing if publicly available.

During the course of two inspections it was found that one horse that had actually been entered for a race soon afterwards had in fact a “catastrophic injury” to a fetlock joint so serious it had to be put down.

Another horse was found with a chronic and obvious injury that left it in pain for much longer than should have been the case if proper standards were followed. Officials found another seven horses inadequately cared for in a field. One was described as being in an “emaciated” condition.

It wasn’t the first time Mahon found himself involved in an animal welfare issue. In 2008 he was ordered to pay €34,000 in a Circuit Civil Court case to the owner of a horse that the judge ruled had been treated so badly it had to be put down to stop unnecessary suffering.

As a result Mahon had his training licence taken away for four months by racing’s regulator for showing complete disregard of the procedures for the ordinary running of a licensed stable. Last week the IHRB took away his licence for four years.

What the case substantially provides evidence of, however, is the value of regulatory boots on the ground carrying out unannounced inspections

Mahon, who has indicated he will appeal the four-year suspension, can continue to work in racing.

Considering this was the second time he has been involved in such a welfare case many will believe the IHRB referrals panel that judged the case erred on the side of leniency. What they did though was publicly acknowledge the “social contract” that applies in any animal sport.

It’s intangible but still the foundation block to racing’s existence. The public expect the highest standards of care and supervision of the animals on which everything else is based. If such standards are perceived to be in any way optional then those foundations get rocked.

So it’s imperative that those rare neglect cases, such as has occurred with Mahon, are jumped all over by racing’s authorities. If nothing else, the sport’s self-interest demands it, especially in an environment where the Elliott case showed how many are predisposed to believing otherwise.

That doesn’t mean pristine perfection can always be presumed when it comes to the behaviour of those who devote their working lives to horses. People invariably get scared or lose their temper so dividends in pats and kisses can fall as well as rise. Standards in professional duty of care never can.

There has always been reassurance that such is everyday practise since the vast majority of people working in racing do so out of an attachment to the animal, as well as the reality that the best way to get the best out of any thoroughbred is to treat it with the sort of care many humans might envy.

However, acknowledgement of how racing can’t just presume that, and has to do everything it can to ensure such standards are maintained, and be seen to do so, is behind important recent upgrades to the sport’s regulatory reach.

Just over a week ago the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine granted ‘authorised officer’ status to 11 IHRB officials which allows them access to all premises on which thoroughbreds are kept. Before their jurisdiction applied only to premises licensed by the IHRB.

It’s part of a new system designed to ensure lifetime traceability of thoroughbreds. No other racing regulator in the world has similar powers. Nowhere else has more at stake in preserving standards than Ireland’s bloodstock industry.

The process of implementing it has been tortuous but it is ultimately recognition that pursuing wrongdoers, and properly penalising them, is vital to maintaining public confidence in racing and breeding.

Despite involving much more substantial welfare elements, Mahon’s suspension has secured nothing like the public traction that the Elliott case did. Perhaps that’s to do with Mahon’s much lower profile or maybe it simply underlines the power of a single visual image.

What the case substantially provides evidence of, however, is the value of regulatory boots on the ground carrying out unannounced inspections.

The blameless might fear it’s about trying to catch them out. Ultimately though they constitute an important weapon in preserving that all-important social contract in an arena where public opinion can be vehement when it doesn’t like what it sees.

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