A Panorama investigation has revealed that thousands of racehorses are being sent to slaughter in the UK and Ireland.
Some of the animals slaughtered were owned and trained by some of the biggest names in horse racing.
Secret records also reveal that rules designed to protect horses from a cruel death appear to be routinely ignored at one of Britain’s biggest abattoirs.
The abattoir told that it does not accept any form of animal cruelty.
One expert described undercover footage from cameras installed by campaign group Animal Aid as evidence of apparent breaches of regulations.
Last February, a photograph showing the great trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse sent shockwaves through the racing world and beyond.
Elliott, who had trained three Grand National winners, was severely reprimanded and suspended until 9 September this year.
The incident caused a sensation but also highlighted the fate of many horses in the industry who have died at the races, in training, or at the abattoir.
A freedom of information request revealed that 4,000 former racehorses have been slaughtered in the UK and Ireland since the start of 2019. Most, but not all, were trained in Ireland.
Animal Aid, which has long campaigned for an end to horse racing, installed secret cameras at Drury and Sons, the UK abattoir licensed to slaughter horses.
“When we saw the footage, we were shocked at a large number of young thoroughbreds,” said Dene Stan all, Animal Aid spokesperson.
The footage was taken over a four-day period in late 2019 and early 2020.
It captures dozens of former horses for slaughter, most of them from Ireland and almost all of them young.
Some of the horses filmed at the abattoir had previously gone on to illustrious careers, winning thousands of pounds in prize money.
Three of the horses were trained by Gordon Elliott at his modern stables in County Meath, Ireland.
He told Panorama that none of the three horses were sent to slaughter by him.
He said the horses were out of competition due to injuries and were not in his care when they were killed.
Elliott said two of the horses were sent to a horse dealer and “re-homed if possible, or if not, humanely euthanized” in accordance with regulations.
He said he gave the third horse to another rider at the owner’s request.
And he said he only learned of its fate when he was contacted by the Panorama program.
Elliott said he had ensured that the animals in his possession were treated and housed correctly and in accordance with their welfare, and that a significant number had been re-homed.
Animal Aid’s cameras also caught violations of regulations designed to protect animals from unnecessary abuse.
The regulations state that horses cannot be killed on sight.
During the four days of filming, 26 occasions were recorded where horses were shot together.
Professor Daniel Mills, a behavioral veterinarian at the University of Lincoln who saw the footage, said, “The sound of a gun being fired at a horse is a very real threat to the horse’s health. The sound of a gun going off can cause consternation, and seeing another horse suddenly fall, all of that can be very distressing for a horse in that situation.”
This is not the only situation where the rules have been broken.
The rules also state that everything possible must be done to ensure a quick death. But the pictures show that sometimes death is anything but instantaneous.
On 91 occasions, cameras recorded slaughterers shooting horses, but from a distance rather than at close range.
Reviewing the footage from one of these killings, Professor Mills said, “It doesn’t even look like the horse was tied. It doesn’t even look like the horse was stunned. You can see how he turns his head. It seems to have some control over its head and neck.
“Shooting a horse from a distance I think is totally inappropriate. If you want to put a horse down, you have to put the bullet in the right place.
“If that represents the way they are killed, then we have a very serious problem.”
The slaughterhouse, Drury and Sons, told Panorama that they “strive to maintain high animal welfare standards and do not accept any form of animal cruelty”.
They stated that all horses are “humanely destroyed” and that if there are any problems they “act quickly to review and correct them”.
As filmed by Animal Aid cameras, some of the slaughtered racehorses were brought from Ireland, travelling more than 350 miles (560 kilometers) by land and sea.
Some of the animals were said to have been affected in their careers.
Dr. Hannah Donovan, a veterinary expert who reviewed the images, said:” [Travelling 350 miles can cause injury, it’s not a humane process. It’s unnecessarily painful.
Dr. Donovan said. The bottom line is that if horses are to be euthanized, they can and should be euthanized at home. It is as simple as that.
Professor Mills said racing authorities’ own guidelines clearly state what should happen to horses when their careers are over.
“The industry’s own regulations suggest that you have to make provision for all the animals you are responsible for,” he said.
Ireland’s governing body for horse racing, the Irish Jockey Club, said it took the welfare of people and horses in the industry very seriously.
The British Horseracing Authority said it had “made a clear commitment to raising the already high standards of care for racehorses” before, during and after racing.”
It said it would “carefully consider” all the issues raised in the Panorama program.
Dene Stan all, of Animal Aid, said:” I can understand why people are attracted to horse racing, having been attracted to it myself.
“[But] because of the poor animal welfare record and the number of horses dying and being slaughtered in abattoirs, I can no longer support it – and I think much of the public would feel the same.”