Brenda Power: Let’s not horse around — racing is just business

Brenda Power
March 7, 2021, The Sunday Times

What would the bloodstock magnate Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum have to do to provoke the same horror and indignation in the racing world as that picture of trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse?

Abduct two of his own daughters at gunpoint and keep them as prisoners for years? Get agents to terrorise his ex-wife by having a loaded gun left on her bed with the safety catch off, or with notes saying: “We will take your son — your daughter is ours — your life is over”? Or perhaps he could tweet a shot of himself alongside his captive daughter Princess Latifa, while chatting on his phone and flashing the V-sign?

It’s unlikely the latter stunt would have the billionaire Dubai ruler pilloried and cancelled by his sport since the first two episodes, accepted as fact by a London divorce court last year, caused scarcely a murmur of disquiet in racing circles. But then Maktoum owns Godolphin, an international thoroughbred breeding operation with four studs in this country, and is a key player in a massive global industry in which money — not human rights, not animal welfare, not even husband-of-the-year credentials — is the only measure of nobility. Horses and wives in that part of the world are the units and trappings of success, to be disposed of or traded in when they are no longer earning their keep.

Elliott’s real crime, in the eyes of the bloodstock industry, was letting slip an inconvenient truth. It wasn’t posing for the picture, it wasn’t releasing the image, it wasn’t being crass or insensitive towards a deceased creature. It was in acknowledging that a dead horse, in the racing business, is just a piece of defunct matter. It’s a Formula One car with a burnt-out engine, deserving of no more sentimentality than any heap of scrap metal.

The horse in the infamous picture was a seven-year-old gelding called Morgan, worth about €170,000. Alive, that is. Dead it was worth probably €20 for dog meat. It belonged to the businessman Michael O’Leary who was, let’s face it, unlikely to have planned a solemn funeral for the deceased. It had died of an aneurysm, not uncommon in animals bred for high performance. This was not a family pet, and the vapours of some in the racing fraternity are somewhat disingenuous.

That’s not to say that horse people or farmers are indifferent to the welfare of their animals. Far from it. They are deeply invested in ensuring their animals have the best of food, shelter and veterinary expertise, and are handled with great care and compassion — if that’s an appropriate term in a sport which permits animals to be whipped with heavy leather crops to drive them faster.

Trainers, jockeys and owners do become attached to these magnificent beasts, both because they are sentient creatures but also because they frequently earn pots of money. While Morgan lived, you can bet he enjoyed greater comfort and healthcare than a lot of humans in this country today.

In his initial explanation for the incident, Elliott described the occasion as a “sad” one. And indeed anybody would be sad to see a €170,000 asset suddenly become worthless. But then his phone rang, and he took a seat to answer it — again, just as any successful businessman would do.

The Irish taxpayer invests heavily in the bloodstock business. Horse Racing Ireland’s grant in the 2021 budget was a substantially increased €76.8 million. I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those still traumatised by the Elliott picture, but we don’t pay this money so that trainers and owners can gambol in verdant meadows with their lovely horses while weaving daisy chains.

The huge Irish exodus to the Cheltenham festival has always been attributed to the spectacle, the atmosphere, the craic, but the fact that it will go ahead without spectators this year is telling. Now we know it’s about the bookies, the business, the money.

Just like the O’Learys and the Maktoums, we expect a return on our investment in this business. We expect stables of a calibre to attract the likes of the sheik and his billions. We expect jobs, spin-off businesses, tourism and gambling revenue. And, as we expect horses to run races, we have little use for them if they’re dead.

● Of all the government offices that remain “paused” or are operating on reduced hours throughout the lockdown, the continued closure of the passport office baffles me most. Not even its online service is available, even though this involves no contact with the public.

Online applications “will be processed when the passport services resumes [sic] operations”, we are told. A note on its website adds operations have been “paused” since December 24, and will remain so until we return to level four restrictions, a month away at best. Only the death or grave illness of an immediate family member will get you a passport now.

While the physical process of producing one does indeed require the presence of staff in an office, this requirement is being managed safely by other public services. So why shut the passport office?

If it’s a sly means of preventing people from travelling, then it’s heavy-handed, unconstitutional and entirely outside the remit of the Department
of Foreign Affairs. Withholding people’s travel documents to keep them captive would be a sinister tactic, unworthy of a western democracy. And passports have applications other than travel, such as ID.

Since there’s bound to be a run on the office whenever it does reopen, why not invite all those whose passports expire from June onwards to submit renewal applications now? It’d make life easier for staff, and avoid the bedlam that will inevitably ensue when we’re finally allowed to travel again.