If you happened to tune in to the Today programme midway through the sport section on Tuesday, the atmosphere was anguished and baffling. “His world is crumbling in front of him right now,” said David Jennings, deputy Irish editor of the Racing Post. “He is a broken man.” In the space between hearing these powerful words and discovering the subject, one’s imagination could go anywhere – a life-changing injury, the untimely loss of a loved one. In fact, they were talking about Gordon Elliott, the Irish horse trainer and three-time Grand National winner, of whom a picture went viral at the weekend.
In the picture, Elliott is sat on a horse, holding a phone with one hand and making a sideways victory sign with the other. The problem is the horse is plainly dead, and it’s not a pretty death, the poor creature’s gaping mouth and glassy eyes seeming to tell the story of a loyalty so intense that it went beyond its heart’s endurance to satisfy the demands of a training run. According to Jennings, Elliott now feared the worst, which would be the removal of his licence and the loss of his business, the jobs of 80 staff gone beside his own. “We cannot defend this,” Jennings continued. “You can’t defend it, I can’t defend it, Gordon can’t defend it. This cannot be defended.” And yet, Jennings went on to talk about the two sides there were to every story, seemingly at pains to imply that the picture wasn’t what it seemed.
It was, even once you’d figured out what was going on, peculiarly heated. The world of horse racing is well known to be pretty brutal: horses often die during the races themselves, in full sight of an audience. The League Against Cruel Sports counted 40 deaths at the three-day Grand National meet between 2000 and 2013, and Animal Aid listed 39 dead horses at the Cheltenham meet over that time period.
Animal rights groups aside, most people accept these deaths as the collateral damage of a noble sport, but the terms of that acceptance are quite subtle: it is based on the understanding that nobody cares more about the horses or feels these losses more keenly than insiders: trainers, owners, riders, grooms. The tragedy, where it occurs, is theirs, and it’s not for the bystander to question whether it was necessary or humane. Hence the incalculable damage of the photo: if it’s normal for a trainer to pose on a corpse like an idiot playboy on a big game hunt, then it follows that they actually don’t care, and all bets are (literally) off.
Money and metaphor loom large over that delicate contract. A friend who was for many years the racing correspondent for a current affairs channel told me of conversation he had at a stud farm, where he asked whether the mares actually enjoyed it. They looked at him as you would an idiot: of course horses enjoy sex. It’s a biological imperative. Otherwise there wouldn’t be horses. He replied: “It’s just that I have noticed that you’re tying her legs up and putting a bag over her head. Lovemaking doesn’t usually involve so much tethering and hoodwearing.”
This is where the raw numbers come in: the overarching importance of nobody kicking anybody else in the testicles is to the tune of millions. Galileo, who has been the most valuable stud in the world for more than a decade, is worth £180m. As perilous as it is to be a low-unit-value animal of interest to human markets – a battery chicken’s life is hardly enviable – horses have a unique resource curse, where their net worth is simply so high that any of their regular equine interests are inevitably subordinated to it (Galileo is often described as “rich”, rather than expensive – it’s just too much money to contemplate as a price tag on a living thing, easier to conceive of him with a bank account, buying fancy leatherette tack.)
But, in reality, a horse doesn’t have much use for money, so the picture relies on an intensely loving relationship between owners, trainers and horses, without which it curdles into a kind of perverse exploitation. From Black Beauty to Boxer in Animal Farm, horses have long stood in metaphorically for the innocent, questing, trusting worker ground under the wheels of the market. The symbolism is more specific than a critique of capitalism: the horse tends to be the emblem of commodification, that unique and unnatural cruelty of putting a price tag on a living thing.
Elliott should have the benefit of the doubt – he could have been deeply upset and just behaved in a strange way. People do wild things when they’ve had a shock. But on reflection, it is unsurprising that we would be scandalised by this picture: we have a huge amount of our own self-worth, as a species, wrapped up in how we respect and treat other species, and the horse racing world poses a constant challenge to this.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist