The stricken racehorse is one of the most shocking sights you will ever see. What, moments earlier, has been the very essence of vitality is suddenly just a hunk of meat. The sight of it sears into the memory. The photo of Gordon Elliott sitting astride a dead horse beside his gallops will scar him, and maybe racing, for life.
His explanation for how he came to be in that position whilst taking a mobile phone call is incongruous but not wholly unbelievable. Elliott being a licenced trainer, the death will have been registered with the Irish authorities, so both the date and the identity of the horse should be swiftly identified. So too will the other half-hidden figure in the picture, and indeed the person behind the camera who, for reasons best known to themselves, has apparently waited several years before making it public.
The truth therefore will out. If it is as bad as first seemed few punishments would be too harsh and the damage to Elliott irreparable. But, regardless of that individual outcome, this incident on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival throws at racing a challenge which is nothing less than existential in its nature. It is how can you justify a mainstream sport at which on regular occasions some participants die in the extremity of their effort?
How can those of us whose lives have been inspired and shaped by our love for the extraordinary brave and brilliant creature that is the thoroughbred racehorse stay unmoved when their light is snuffed out right in front of, or most graphically for a rider, right under us? The answer, as anyone will find if they catch up with former Grand National winner Mick Fitzgerald’s tearful interview on Attheraces yesterday morning, is that we cannot.
“The number one thing we have to get out,” said the 51 year old who was twice leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival, and won both the Gold Cup and the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1999, “ is that everyone who has any interest at the heart of this are people who love these animals.” Mick’s last ride broke his back in the 2008 Grand National but while he has recovered, he will have plenty of memories of horses who didn’t. I have them myself.
The first was at Newbury almost 60 years ago: an instant, violent capsize on a bonny liver chestnut called Red Stag and when I got myself together the only useful thing I could do was to drag the saddle from his sweat soaked back. There were others that went beneath me, moments of horror witnessed whilst in the TV chair and writing for this newspaper’s sister publication. One seemingly idyllic morning high on the Berkshire Downs in July 1983 became instant nightmare when a filly collapsed and died right in front of me and trainer Henry Candy who, in those pre mobile days, had to race home to phone the ambulance whilst jockey Willie Newnes deteriorated so quickly that I had to give him the kiss of life.
We all have these memories, I am hyper-ventilating as I write. It is, as Mick Fitzgerald so movingly put it, just because we love and admire these athletes so much that every death cuts us to the quick. The racehorse is half a ton of four-legged power that can carry 9 stone of human from 0-40 mph in fifteen jumps or run two miles and jump 12 four-foot fences in under 4 minutes. It has evolved over 300 years of selective breeding to become the fastest weight carrying creature the world has ever seen. Its ultimate fulfilment is at the gallop but at a pace where accidents so inevitably happen that insurance for a two year old in the field is the same as on the training grounds.
To nurture a racehorse demands devotion of a pragmatic as well as a personal kind. The horse is a sentient being but has to be respected for the animal that it is. There can be no place for any lessening of those values. That’s why the sight of that picture made me sick. That why the love and care and right-to-the-bone devotion of those closest to the game must win through for it to be worth the candle.