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Mr. Simon McGonagle (Stable Employee) Referral – 19th March 2021

The Referrals Committee, The Hon. Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan (in the chair), Mr. Anthony Byrne and Mr. Peter M. Allen convened via Zoom on Friday 19th March 2021 to consider the referral of Mr. Simon McGonagle (Stable Employee) following an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) investigation into an image circulating on social media which first came to the attention of the IHRB on Saturday 27th February 2021.

At the outset, Ms. Cliodhna Guy, IHRB Head of Licensing, Legal and Compliance, outlined how, as part of an investigation into an image circulating on social media involving Mr. Gordon Elliott (Trainer), it was confirmed that Mr. McGonagle took the photograph.

Evidence was heard from Mr. McGonagle and Mrs. Denise Foster. The panel also considered the transcript of an IHRB interview with Mr. McGonagle and submissions from Ms. Guy and Mr. Andrew Coonan representing Mr. McGonagle.

In his evidence, Mr. McGonagle outlined his experience and employment within racing over approximately 30 years. He described his current role working as Head Lad for Mrs. Denise Foster at Cullentra House Stables and previously for Mr. Gordon Elliott for whom he was first employed in 2007. He explained that each barn in Cullentra House has a manager and each of those barn managers would report to him on a daily basis and he in turn would update Mrs Foster with all the relevant information. Recalling the photograph which he took and which was subsequently widely shared on social media last month, Mr. McGonagle stated that he foolishly took the photograph on Snapchat and sent it to five people. He said he has spoken to each of the five people he recalls sending it to in the last couple of weeks and each of them assured him that they did not take a screenshot of it or remember seeing it since it was first sent in 2019. Mr. McGonagle accepted that the photograph showed disrespect to the horse involved but insisted there was no malice or disrespect intended and it was 30 seconds of madness that has had a devastating impact on himself, his friends, his work colleagues and his employer at the time which is something he will have to try and live with for the rest of his life. He added it was a stupid act and the biggest regret of his life as it doesn’t reflect the standards of horse welfare and care that is provided by him and by everyone he works with at Cullentra House on a daily basis. Mr McGonagle accepted that his action in taking and disseminating the photo was idiotic.

In her evidence, Mrs. Foster stated that she has known Mr. McGonagle for a long time as he rode for her as a jockey in races. She described Mr. McGonagle as a person who is quiet and efficient in everything he does with both people and horses and that he has a lovely demeanour around horses which she has seen first-hand especially in the last fortnight. She outlined the importance of his role with her as Head Lad since she took over at Cullentra House in terms of briefing her on both the horses and the staff and explained how he is a huge cog in the wheel in what is a unique situation at Cullentra House presently.

Having considered the evidence the Committee decided as follows and the decision read out by The Hon. Mrs. Justice Keegan is set out below.

This Referrals Committee sits to consider Mr. Simon McGonagles’s conduct in the context of Rules 272(i) and 273(xiii) of the Rules of Racing.

First, in relation to the charge, there was no dispute that Mr. McGonagle comes within the rules. We also note that Mr. McGonagle did not contest the fact that he took the photograph, captioned it and disseminated it to five friends. This ultimately led to the photograph becoming public from an unknown source. Mr. McGonagle accepts that by virtue of his actions he was part of a chain of events that has caused damage to the integrity of racing and he fully understands the outrage expressed in relation to this image.

Therefore, having considered the evidence, the Referrals Committee found Mr. McGonagle in breach of Rule 272(i) in that he acted in a manner which was prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and good reputation of horseracing. In those circumstances Rule 273(xiii) is redundant.

We proceed to consider sanction as follows, bearing in mind our powers pursuant to Rule 19A and all of the additional powers open to us.

We will not repeat what has been said before about the awful image at the heart of this case. The taking of the image was ill-judged and in bad taste and we consider that Mr. McGonagle should have known better as a Head Lad involved in the industry for a considerable time. As Head Lad he should also show a good example to others in the yard. However, we reiterate the points made in the Elliott case that this incident is not concerned with cruelty or horse welfare. Also, having heard the evidence in this case we are no further on as to how this image came into the public domain and we can reach no conclusions on that issue.

We reach the sanction having considered all of the circumstances, aggravating and mitigating factors, bearing in mind the seriousness of the offence and the need for deterrence, and considering Mr. McGonagle’s personal circumstances, in order to reach a proportionate result.

We consider the following in terms of aggravation:
i. The damage caused to the reputation and integrity of the industry
ii. The idiotic behaviour on Mr. McGonagle’s part which was threefold, taking the image, captioning it and disseminating it to others via Snapchat.
iii. The implicit support for Mr. Elliott’s actions by the taking of the image

In terms of mitigation we take into account the following:
i. Mr. McGonagle has shown genuine remorse
ii. He has apologised
iii. Mr. McGonagle has cooperated fully with the IHRB
iv. He is of good character
v. There was no malice or forethought and this was a momentary loss of judgment
vi. This incident has caused personal stress and upset to him given the reaction to it
vii. Mr. McGonagle is an integral part of Cullentra’s operation, a point stressed by Mrs. Denise Foster in her evidence.
viii. The financial consequences of any disqualification
ix. Mr. McGonagle did not release the image on social media himself

There are also some distinguishing factors from the Elliott case as follows:
i. Mr. McGonagle is not in the position of a trainer
ii. He was not the main participant

Overall, we consider that the starting point is nine months disqualification but given the mitigating factors seven months will be suspended for a period of 1 year after which the disqualification lapses.

This sanction will take effect 4 weeks from today.

The case was presented Ms. Cliodhna Guy, IHRB Head of Licensing, Legal and Compliance. Mr. McGonagle was represented by Mr. Andrew Coonan of Coonan Cawley Solicitors, Naas, County Kildare.


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