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Brendan O’Neill

Can we forgive Gordon Elliott?

Can we forgive Gordon Elliott?
Gordon Elliott (Getty images)
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What has happened to forgiveness? That question hangs heavy over the Gordon Elliott controversy. He’s the racehorse trainer currently in the eye of a media storm after a photo emerged showing him sitting on top of a dead horse. There has been virtually no discussion about forgiving Elliott for this error. Instead the knives of cancellation have been drawn. He must be destroyed. It’s the only way, apparently.

The fury has been relentless. The photo, taken in 2019, shows Elliott atop one of the racehorses that he trains. The horse had just died from a heart attack. It’s an unpleasant image, for sure. The horse’s eyes are glazed over, its teeth are bared. And Elliott is astride it, taking a call on his mobile phone, and seemingly making the peace sign with his other hand.

It was an error of judgement. A stupid thing to do. But here’s the thing: Elliott has apologised, and ‘profoundly’. 

‘I apologise profoundly for any offence that this photo has caused’, he said in a statement. Shouldn’t that be the end of it? He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t even kill a horse. He merely posed for an ill-advised photo and he has now apologised unreservedly for having done so. He has seen the error of his way. So let’s move on.

Not a bit of it. Not today, in this ruthless climate of retribution we inhabit. Anyone who morally errs must be cancelled, they must be completely destroyed. Elliott is experiencing this right now. This highly successful, well-respected trainer — his horses have won the Grand National three times and have been victorious at Cheltenham 32 times — is being demonised and cast out. He’s a marked man, apparently, and there can be no redemption for marked men.

He has been banned from racing in Britain, for now at least, while the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board carries out an investigation into the photograph. Betfair, the bookies, has broken all ties with him. Strikingly, Betfair acknowledged Elliott’s apology but then cast it aside. 

‘While we recognise that Gordon Elliott deeply regrets and apologised unreservedly for his poor judgement, his actions are completely at odds with the values of the Betfair brand.’ Recognising you have made a mistake and asking for forgiveness counts for nothing, it seems, in the era of cancellation.

Horse owners are starting to remove their horses from Elliott’s stables. Cheveley Park Stud is taking eight horses away from him. This won’t only turn the screws even harder on Elliott — it will also threaten the livelihoods of the 80 people who work for him. As one report says, it all ‘casts uncertainty over the future of his 80 staff at his stables in County Meath’.

Here’s my question: is this proportionate? Is this campaign of cancellation proportionate to the folly Elliott committed? Is it right that a man’s reputation can be trashed and his stable hands could lose their jobs because he sat on a dead horse for a few seconds in 2019? Surely those of us whose moral compasses are still working, who believe people must be allowed the leeway to occasionally do silly, ill-judged things, can see that this is all way, way over the top?

Clearly horseracing bigwigs are desperate to distance themselves from Elliott because their sport gets enough flak as it is. From animal-rights activists to anti-gambling prigs, there’s a lot of hate for horseracing, the vast majority of it unjustified. The horseracing industry, on the defensive, seems to have decided that it can’t risk defending Elliott or else it will attract yet more criticism and bile. This is a mistake. Elliott is one of their most impressive trainers. They should not throw him to the wolves of cancellation.

But this controversy tells us a bigger story, too. About the disappearance of the ideal of redemption in this time of Twittermobbing and gleeful reputation-trashing. About how cancellation has made forgiveness distinctly unfashionable. About how today's trends of denunciation and platform-removal have generated a culture in which mobs of people will swarm together to demand nothing less than the destruction of anyone who misspeaks or commits certain misdemeanours. And if you say ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me’, they’ll throw their rotten tomatoes even harder.

Gordon Elliott says he can feel his world ‘crumbling’. That photo was a ‘moment of madness that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life paying for’, he says. This is scary stuff. No one should spend their life paying for a momentary lapse. That is now how a civilised society should operate. The attempt to destroy a man’s reputation over one misjudgement is more immoral and despicable than briefly sitting on a dead horse. Why can’t more people see that?