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HRI emphasises commitment to racehorse welfare

Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Brian Kavanagh has described images from Monday night’s Panorama programme concerning the fate of ex-racehorses as “abhorrent”.

The programme, entitled The Dark Side of Horse Racing, broadcast covert footage filmed inside one of the UK’s biggest abattoirs – which it is claimed showed rules surrounding the slaughter of horses being breached.

The programme reported horses had been transported from Ireland to the UK with an injury before arriving at an abattoir – which is against the approved practices – while it was also claimed that contaminated horse meat could be finding its way into the human food chain via the fraudulent practice of switching microchips inside horses to evade passport checks which may show an animal had been treated with Bute.

The HRI says it has reported the chip-switching claim to An Garda Siochana while also seeking the assistance of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in respect of allegations in the programme regarding the transport of horses from Ireland to Swindon in 2019-2020 period.

Discussions took place with that government department on Tuesday, in addition to consultation with the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Board, Irish Racehorse Trainers Association and British Horseracing Authority, which HRI says “emphasised the strong commitment within the industry to the highest standards of care and welfare for each of the circa 50,000 thoroughbreds in Ireland, particularly as they reach the end of their racing career”.

HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh, said: “The images we saw last night were abhorrent to all within Irish racing and in no way reflect the care and attention given to the overwhelming majority of horses in Ireland.

“Our people and our horses are our greatest strength, and it was sickening to see the fate which befell some horses on last night’s programme.

“We support the British Horseracing Authority’s calls for an investigation into whether there has been a departure from approved UK abattoir practices and will support such an investigation in any way we can.

“Likewise, we will work with the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine in relation to transport arrangements for horses between Ireland and England.”

HRI also outlined a series of nine initiatives which shape the Irish Thoroughbred Welfare Council’s Horse Welfare Strategy.

John Osborne, HRI’s director of equine welfare and bloodstock, added: “The care of our horses is at the centre of everything we do. Ireland is home to 2,500 thoroughbred farms on which live over 30,000 thoroughbreds.

“Whether at the top level of creating a vibrant industry in which so many thousands of people devote their lives down to the last detail of improving the day-to-day routine for the horses, the horse is ensured the highest standards of care.

“Everyone in the industry knows that nothing less than the best will do.”

Irish Government officials had earlier denied they were aware that “thousands” of ex-racehorses, previously trained in Ireland, were being sent for slaughter to British abattoirs.

It was claimed that at least 4,000 racehorses have been slaughtered in abattoirs since 2019, with “most, but not all” trained in Ireland.

A number of Irish government officials appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine and the agriculture department’s deputy chief veterinary officer Michael Sheahan said there were “a few issues” that came up in the programme.

“For me, probably, the most striking issue was around the whole area of horse slaughter,” Mr Sheahan told the committee.

“The footage from the abattoir in Swindon was probably the thing that struck home most with me.”

Independent senator Ronan Mullen said what emerged from the programme was “extremely disturbing”.

“The picture we are getting in recent times in Ireland is that we might be a horse-loving nation, and while there might be people in horse racing who do love horses, there seems to be a lot of people in the horse racing industry who don’t love horses,” he added.

“They see them as machines and entities to be used for making money.

“It is hard for us to believe you are very surprised at what went on in the documentary last night.

“I think most people will feel that you had a fair idea for some time that this kind of thing is going on.”

Dr Kevin Smyth, assistant secretary general at the department, said he had “no idea” what was happening.

“I categorically knew nothing about this until I saw what was on last night,” he added.

“I had no inkling whatsoever.”

Mr Sheahan also told the committee it was illegal to transport injured horses long distances.

“If it was the case that the animal was loaded on a box and transported 200 miles, that’s clearly illegal.

“I’m not sure that was the case.

“He could have been injured en route,” he added.

Mr Mullen was also critical of the traceability system in place for horses, accusing officials of failing to pursue an animal welfare agenda “with vigour”.

Mr Sheahan said there is a “need to move forward” with plans to update regulations this year.

Fianna Fail’s Joe Flaherty said it was “harrowing” footage.

“We have an issue with traceability of horses in this country, and it’s spread across a number of regulatory bodies,” he added.

“We are a horse-loving nation and we greatly pride and value our reputation as an equine nation but the onus has to come to the Department of Agriculture on the issue of horse ownership.”

He said that ownership and traceability of the movement of horses is a “grey area” in Ireland.

“We need to get horse ownership in Ireland, the traceability and where they are sold, how they are sold and where they are exported all into one central database,” Mr Flaherty added.

“In the modern age it’s inconceivable that we have not been able to hack that.”

Mr Sheahan said the traceability system in the horse sector is “nowhere near” as good as the cattle sector.

“We have a Rolls-Royce system when it comes to cattle,” Mr Sheahan added.

“In horses we don’t, but we have come a long way.”

‘No inkling’ thousands of Irish ex-racehorses were sent for slaughter in UK

Irish Government officials have denied they were aware that “thousands” of ex-racehorses, previously trained in Ireland, were being sent for slaughter to British abattoirs.

It was reported by the BBC’s Panorama that racehorses killed in British slaughter plants had been transported from Ireland, with some travelling more than 350 miles by road with critical injuries.

It is illegal under Irish and European law to transport a horse in a way that is likely to “cause it injury or undue suffering”.

In the programme, aired on Monday night, it was claimed that most of the 4,000 racehorses were Irish-trained.

Covert recording also indicated breaches of regulations for slaughter plants.

A number of Irish government officials appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine.

The agriculture department’s deputy chief veterinary officer Michael Sheahan said there were “a few issues” that came up in the programme.

“For me, probably, the most striking issue was around the whole area of horse slaughter,” Mr Sheahan told the committee.

“The footage from the abattoir in Swindon was probably the thing that struck home most with me.”

The footage captures dozens of horses apparently shot by a slaughterman who is standing yards away.

Mr Sheahan told the committee that method of slaughter is not used in Ireland.

He said he has been involved in horse slaughter for 20 years, adding that the number of horses slaughtered in Ireland varies from year to year.

Ireland currently has two approved slaughter plants, with one closed following a fire at its premises.

He added: “I’m happy to say that we’re very satisfied with the way things operate in the slaughter plant here.

“They’re regulated in pretty much the same way as a beef slaughter plant or a sheep slaughter plant.

“We have a full-time official Department of Agriculture vet present at all times when the slaughter is taking place.”

He added: “The single most surprising thing about the programme was the method of slaughter of the horses.”

Independent senator Ronan Mullen said what emerged from the programme was “extremely disturbing”.

“The picture we are getting in recent times in Ireland is that we might be a horse-loving nation, and while there might be people in horse racing who do love horses, there seems to be a lot of people in the horse racing industry who don’t love horses,” he added.

“They see them as machines and entities to be used for making money.

“It is hard for us to believe you are very surprised at what went on in the documentary last night.

“I think most people will feel that you had a fair idea for some time that this kind of thing is going on.”

Dr Kevin Smyth, assistant secretary general at the department, said he had “no idea” what was happening.

“I categorically knew nothing about this until I saw what was on last night,” he added.

“I had no inkling whatsoever.”

Mr Sheahan also told the committee it was illegal to transport injured horses long distances.

“If it was the case that the animal was loaded on a box and transported 200 miles, that’s clearly illegal.

“I’m not sure that was the case.

“He could have been injured en route,” he added.

Mr Mullen was also critical of the traceability system in place for horses, accusing officials of failing to pursue an animal welfare agenda “with vigour”.

Mr Sheahan said there is a “need to move forward” with plans to update regulations this year.

Fianna Fail’s Joe Flaherty said it was “harrowing” footage.

“We have an issue with traceability of horses in this country, and it’s spread across a number of regulatory bodies,” he added.

“We are a horse-loving nation and we greatly pride and value our reputation as an equine nation but the onus has to come to the Department of Agriculture on the issue of horse ownership.”

He said that ownership and traceability of the movement of horses is a “grey area” in Ireland.

“We need to get horse ownership in Ireland, the traceability and where they are sold, how they are sold and where they are exported all into one central database,” Mr Flaherty added.

“In the modern age it’s inconceivable that we have not been able to hack that.”

Mr Sheahan said the traceability system in the horse sector is “nowhere near” as good as the cattle sector.

“We have a Rolls-Royce system when it comes to cattle,” Mr Sheahan added.

“In horses we don’t, but we have come a long way.”

Rapid growth in demand for Retraining of Racehorses

There has never been more interest in the rehoming and retraining of ex-racehorses, according to the industry’s official charity for their welfare.

Questions about the fate of retired racehorses were raised by Monday’s Panorama programme, which broadcast scenes of horses about to be euthanised at an abattoir in Swindon – reporting many had arrived there after gruelling transportation from Ireland.

Retraining of Racehorses is a charity which focuses on the welfare of horses retired from the track and supports them in their transition to other equestrian disciplines, providing a platform for them to find a new home as well as a series of training events and competitions aimed exclusively at horses embarking on a second career after a spell in training.

“It should be emphasised that the aftercare landscape for former racehorses in Great Britain has changed significantly for the better in recent years,” said Di Arbuthnot, chief executive of the charity.

“RoR has played an integral role in this by helping generate a demand for former racehorses among the wider equestrian market.

“It is a shame that this side of the story was not reflected in the programme.”

In the 15 years since its inception, the number of horses on the RoR database has multiplied, with just over 9,000 currently registered with the charity.

“RoR provided the (Panorama) producers with figures that illustrate this growth, showing how thousands more former racehorses every year are enjoying long and fulfilling careers after racing,” said Arbuthnot.

“In addition to the 9,010 active horses registered on our database, among the figures we provided was that in the 15 years since RoR started staging classes and series exclusively for former racehorses, annual participation in RoR showing events has risen from 270 horses to 3,467; in dressage from 0 to 4,148; and in eventing from 0 to 2,912.”

The covertly recorded footage at the abattoir appeared to show workers breaching regulations surrounding the slaughter of horses.

“The programme did raise some concerning issues that obviously warrant further investigation by the relevant authorities,” added Arbuthnot.

“As a welfare charity ourselves, we passionately believe every domesticated animal deserves to be treated humanely and with dignity throughout their lives.”

Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, believes the programme highlighted a myriad of issues and warned the racing industry “needs to sit up and take note”.

He said: “Panorama has shone a spotlight on the consequences of individuals involved in the racing industry not exercising their duty of care, and the standards of practice of euthanising retired racehorses.

“These are issues of great concern to very many people in the horse world and very many more outside of it. The reaction shows how strongly the public feels about it.

“The programme also raises far bigger issues than what appear to be shocking practices of one abattoir – from breeding programmes to training regimes, to lack of regard for horse welfare during transport, to the integrity of our passport system and, therefore, the traceability of racehorses.

“The industry, from top to bottom, needs to sit up and take note.”

Owers added that, while WHW supports the publication of British racing’s Horse Welfare Board strategy and Defra’s Action Plan on Animal Welfare, the programme illustrated “the significant gap that exists between good policy framing and effective implementation”.

He added: “The programme reminds us that it is the duty of everyone involved, be it an owner, trainer or racing industry professional to take proper, considered responsibility for the horses with which they are entrusted.

“For horse racing to have a sustainable future it must have zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour and low standards of welfare. The horse human partnership is a wonderful thing, and a force for good in so many areas, but there is no place in our society for its abuse.”

Bailey asserts trainers and owners should take lead in care of retired horses

Kim Bailey insists it is the responsibility of his fellow trainers, and owners, to ensure ex-racehorses are properly cared for throughout their lives.

Bailey, who has trained the winners of all the top National Hunt races in a career stretching over more than 30 years, described the covert footage of abattoirs broadcast by the BBC’s Panorama programme as “horrific” and “horrendous”.

He stressed too, however, that it is incumbent on those who own and look after horses in their racing years to do all they can to help provide a safe and comfortable home for them afterwards.

Monday night’s Panorama documentary broadcast scenes of horses about to be euthanised at an abattoir in Swindon – reporting many had arrived there after gruelling and inhumane transportation from Ireland.

The British Horseracing Authority has responded by calling urgent meetings to discuss the troubling issues with industry leaders, including the independently-chaired Horse Welfare Board, and their counterparts at Horse Racing Ireland.

Bailey told Sky Sports Racing: “You can keep re-funding and adding more funds as long as you want to – but the end product is it is up to the trainers, I believe, to make sure the horses they have in their own care find a home afterwards whereby they can be looked after and treasured for the rest of their lives.

“I think it’s something trainers need to point out to owners that, when they get involved in racing, they are as responsible as we are to make sure those horses – when they leave racing – have a future.

“You just can’t get involved in a horse and say ‘well, actually it’s stopped racing now – I want to get rid of it’.

“They’ve got to hold on to responsibility themselves. It’s a dual responsibility, from the trainers’ point of view and the owners’ to make sure we look after where horses go after racing.”

Also crucial, Bailey believes, is the administrative infrastructure which allows the movement of ex-racehorses to be properly tracked.

Kim Bailey (left) with Harry Topper after his victory in the 2014 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury
Kim Bailey (left) with Harry Topper after his victory in the 2014 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“I think it’s incredibly important,” he said.

“We pass on horses on a regular basis – I think we’ve moved on about 20 this summer.

“We interview the people who are taking the horse on, (and) we get references from the people who are having them.

“They have to keep in touch with me during the entire time they have the horse. If at any stage during that period they find they can’t cope, for financial reasons or they find the horse is not suitable for them, the horse has to come back here – and then we can try again.”

One such horse was Bailey’s former Grade Two-winning chaser Harry Topper.

He added: “Harry Topper – who was a very good horse for me some years ago – we rehomed him three times.

“The third time, we found the ideal home for him in Ireland with a person who used to look after him when she was here.

“They go from here with a view that, if it doesn’t work out, they have to come back – so they can’t disappear.”

Enhanced governance by racing authorities can only help further.

“You can certainly push on the governing situation,” said Bailey.

“They have a microchip – horses are, like a human, (in that) they have a passport. They are there to see if we can trace where they’ve gone to.

“How far do you go to regulate the situation?

“There are always going to be (cases) whereby horses do not end up in the ideal home – and a decision has to be made as to what happens to that horse.

“But it should be a joint decision between the owner and trainer as to what you do next.”

Bailey was especially concerned by Panorama’s reports that many horses – including former top chaser Vyta Du Roc – had to endure transportation from Ireland to the abattoir in Swindon.

“I thought that was probably the most horrific part of the whole programme,” he said.

“I’m sure Ireland have their own abattoirs – (so) I cannot understand why horses had to be dragged from Ireland to Swindon. It made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

“I think that’s one area we need to really push to find out why that happens – because (the horse) should never have been in the situation it was, to go from one country to the next.”

Panorama’s abattoir has caused great consternation – as have claims that contaminated horse meat found its way into the human food chain via fraudulent practice.

The Food Standards Agency, which regulates abattoirs, responded in a statement which read: “Upholding animal welfare and the safety and authenticity of the food we eat is a top priority for Government.

“The Food Standards Agency and Defra work closely with food businesses and slaughterhouses to ensure that animal welfare is maintained at all stages of food production and that all our food is correctly labelled and safe to eat.

“The FSA has asked Panorama to supply the footage that has been obtained during this investigation. If there is any evidence of mistreatment of animals, they will take action and investigate thoroughly.”

Bailey added: “The programme showed racing in a bad light, but it also showed the abattoir world is in a far worse place than we are.

“Their welfare regulations are obviously not as stringent as they rather hoped they are.

“To see what we saw last night – which was nothing to do with racing – is just awful, and you have to work on the theory that the abattoirs need to get themselves under control, because what they showed us last night was just horrific.

David Menuisier agrees with his fellow trainer Kim Bailey about the responsibility of care provided to ex-racehorses
David Menuisier agrees with his fellow trainer Kim Bailey about the responsibility of care provided to ex-racehorses (PA)

“Anybody who has to watch those sort of scenes, it’s horrendous to see.”

Flat trainer David Menuisier underlined his belief too that trainers owe a debt to their former charges when their racing days are over.

He said: “I think the pictures we saw last night were absolutely disgusting.

“People who are in the sport are basically there because they love horses, they are animal lovers – and what we saw last night (in the abattoir footage) was just atrocious.

“I’m trying to rehome a horse now who I’ve cared for three or four years. I’ve had a few phone calls, but I want to meet the people and make sure they are right for him before anything is agreed.

“I think we possibly need to look at better traceability for horses after they leave racing, but many horses do go on to have a happy retirement.

“We are nothing without them, and we owe it to them to make sure they have happy lives. We need to make sure from A to Z, like humans, they are cared for and treated well.”

BHA calls urgent industry meetings on Panorama content

The British Horseracing Authority will hold urgent meetings with the independently-chaired Horse Welfare Board, and other industry leaders, to discuss the content of a BBC Panorama investigation.

The BHA will also contact colleagues at Horse Racing Ireland after the Monday night programme, entitled The Dark Side of Horse Racing,  broadcast covert footage filmed inside one of the UK’s biggest abattoirs – which it is claimed showed rules surrounding the slaughter of horses being breached.

The programme reported that horses had been transported from Ireland to the UK with an injury before arriving at an abattoir – which is against the approved practices and is an issue the BHA will look at as a “matter of urgency”.

A statement from the BHA, referencing the welfare standards, read: “This includes transporting horses over long distances to an abattoir, especially if these have injuries, which is not acceptable under the British racing industry’s guidelines for euthanasia.

“The Food Standards Agency, which regulates abattoirs, is responsible for maintaining standards of animal welfare. We would support them if they decide there is evidence of mistreatment of animals which requires investigation, given the public concern that may arise from this programme.

“The British racing industry, and the 7000 and more staff who look after our horses day-in, day-out, across Britain, are proud of the unparalleled standards of love, care, attention, and respect our horses receive. Where end-of life decisions are being considered, we want these to take place in accordance with the euthanasia guidelines developed by the industry’s Horse Welfare Board over the last 12 months. These aim to ensure that horses’ welfare is protected and that all available options for rehoming are examined.

“Our sport has set out its wider approach to equine welfare in a strategy published in 2020, which the programme chose not to highlight. One of the core aspects of this strategy is collective lifetime responsibility, and the report identified the need to further enhance our record in the fields of aftercare and traceability.”

The BHA also stated that significant steps had been taken since the publication of the strategy – including a review and recommendations for the funding of the aftercare sector.

The statement spelled out that industry discussions of the issues raised are set to take place on Tuesday.

It added: “The BHA and other leaders from the British racing industry, including the independently-chaired Horse Welfare Board, will be meeting tomorrow to consider further the issues raised by this programme.

“We will also be in contact with our colleagues in Ireland.”

Another claim in the programme was that contaminated horse meat was finding its way into the human food chain via the fraudulent practice of switching microchips inside horses to evade passport checks which may show an animal had been treated with Bute.

In response, the Food Standards Agency said in a statement: “Upholding animal welfare and the safety and authenticity of the food we eat is a top priority for Government.

“The Food Standards Agency and Defra work closely with food businesses and slaughterhouses to ensure that animal welfare is maintained at all stages of food production and that all our food is correctly labelled and safe to eat.

“The FSA has asked Panorama to supply the footage that has been obtained during this investigation. If there is any evidence of mistreatment of animals, they will take action and investigate thoroughly.”

Horse Racing Ireland responded after the programme too, stating: “Horse Racing Ireland unreservedly condemns the practices shown in the images from the Swindon, UK abattoir, portrayed this evening in the BBC documentary Panorama.

“HRI supports calls for an investigation by the relevant UK authority into this abattoir.

“This footage showed both animal and human health issues and is not reflective of the care that racehorses receive in the horseracing industry throughout their lives.”

A further statement from the National Trainers Federation also condemned the practices depicted in the covert footage.

It read: “The scenes at the abattoir shown in Panorama tonight were sickening, and the National Trainers Federation (NTF) has no hesitation in condemning those practices. We note that the programme produced no examples of horses trained in Britain suffering a similar fate at this or any other abattoir.

“Britain has a well-established and highly esteemed programme for rehoming racehorses trained in this country. Managed by the industry’s charity Retraining of Racehorses, the programme has successfully expanded the market for racehorses to move on to new careers away from the racecourse. Such is the demand, our trainers tell us that they have no difficulty finding good new homes for retired racehorses.

“Along with all other stakeholders and participants in British horseracing, the NTF fully supports the industry’s Horse Welfare Strategy published in 2020 under the auspices of the independently chaired Horse Welfare Board.

“The strategy notes that ‘Euthanasia can…sometimes be effective in preventing unnecessary suffering and avoiding a welfare problem’.

“British trainers take a responsible and compassionate approach with racehorses that have long-term injuries. If a vet recommends euthanasia, their aim would be to carry it out at the trainer’s premises in a professional and humane way in accordance with the industry’s euthanasia guidelines.”

Panorama broadcast to focus on fate of ex-racehorses

Racing is bracing itself ahead of a Panorama broadcast on Monday evening which will focus on the fate of racehorses after their careers have ended.

The programme, entitled The Dark Side of Horse Racing, will be shown at 8.30pm on BBC One and includes covert footage filmed inside one of the UK’s biggest abattoirs – which it is claimed show rules surrounding the slaughter of horses being breached.

The cameras were set up by a campaign group which has called for an end to racing and filmed at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, during which time it is alleged “dozens” of former racehorses were shot, with regulations to prevent animals from unnecessary suffering contravened on numerous occasions.

Veterinary experts have offered their views to the programme, outlining concerns about the manner of slaughter as well as the transport of horses, especially those with potential injuries.

A leading trainer also features as three of the horses concerned were reportedly trained by them.

The programme claims at least 4,000 racehorses have been slaughtered in abattoirs since 2019, with “most, but not all” trained in Ireland.