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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Once a racehorse, always a racehorse

© Photo Healy Racing

The Prime Time Investigates: ‘Horses - Making A Killing’ that aired on RTÉ last Wednesday was utterly shocking. The abuse of horses shown on the programme was nothing short of barbaric and I’m at a loss to understand how this could have taken place in a country where horses are as celebrated and prized as they are in Ireland.

Ireland is a world leader in the producing, raring and racing of thoroughbreds, yet right under the nose of this billion euro industry many of the very same thoroughbreds are being subjected to horrendous abuse after their careers end.

It is hard to fathom how this situation has been allowed to perpetuate some three years after the BBC Panorama documentary Dark Side Of Racing exposed similar ill treatment of racehorses.

After the programme aired last week I was disappointed, but not surprised, with the response from those tasked with the protection and promotion of thoroughbreds in Ireland.

The Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) statement, which did utterly condemn the conduct seen on the documentary, did nothing to reassure me that we will never see anything like this again.

Included in the HRI statement was this line: “Equine safety and care is HRI’s top priority, and this year HRI will invest €16.1 million in welfare and integrity services.” This sentence is somewhat misleading as it gives the impression that HRI is spending €16.1 million on equine safety and care, but the vast majority of this money is the costs associated with the administration of the sport by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB).

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) also issued a less than adequate statement in my opinion. The DAFM statement was essentially covering its own back by saying: “The welfare of horses is protected by legislation, placing responsibility on owners and those who have animals in their possession or under their control to ensure the animals welfare.” That may well be the case, but these abhorrent abuses of horses took place right under the noses of DAFM Vets and they seemingly didn’t spot what was going on.

Are we really supposed to believe that the thugs that were abusing horses in the lairage in Straffan suddenly turned into model citizens when moving the same horses to the abattoir next door where the DAFM vets were present? And that injured and distressed horses never entered the abattoir?

Then you have the IHRB whose purpose is to “Safeguard the reputation of Irish horseracing through robust and transparent regulatory practice” and claims with regards to welfare to have “a relentless focus on the safety and well-being of our human and equine participants,” but didn’t deem it necessary to even make a statement about the content of the documentary which showed many of its former equine participants being treated horrifically.

In my opinion the three organisations tasked with the regulation and protection of thoroughbreds on this island are merely battening down the hatches here waiting for the latest storm to pass and this approach simply isn’t good enough. The current checks and balances relating to thoroughbreds after they leave racing are clearly inadequate.

The department of transport can tell you the full ownership history of a 1990 Nissan Micra, but when a four or five year old racehorse leaves the sport it can often disappear into thin air.

The tone coming from many within the horse racing industry is that these issues have nothing to do with them as the horses are no longer part of the sport when these abuses take place. But the majority of horses ending up in facilities like the abattoir in Staffan are thoroughbreds that were produced with the sole purpose of racing. It is simply unacceptable for the sport to wash its hands of these horses once their usefulness in racing or breeding ends. The racing industry needs to radically change tack if it is to retain credibility with the wider public.

Horse racing cannot operate effectively without its ‘social licence’ from the general public. The sport of horse racing needs the public to buy into the narrative that, while a small percentage of horses will die competing in racing, the rest are cherished and cared for in the best possible way from cradle to grave.

Keeping this social licence intact is imperative in Ireland where taxpayers stump up €76 million a year to fund the sport.

The very least that taxpayers deserve in return is the absolute assurance that scenes like we witnessed in the RTÉ documentary will never happen again, but no one seems willing to provide it.

Horse racing needs to future proof its product and that must include a clear and unambiguous retirement strategy for its equine participants.