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Mr. Robert James (Rider/Handler) – Referral – 10th March 2021

The Referrals Committee, Ms. Justice Leonie Reynolds, Mr. N.B. Wachman and Mr. Sean Barry convened at the Offices of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) on Wednesday 10th March 2021 to consider the referral of Mr. Robert James (Rider/Handler) following an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board investigation into a video circulating on social media which first came to the attention of the IHRB on Tuesday 2nd March 2021.

At the outset, Ms. Cliodhna Guy, IHRB Head of Licensing, Legal and Compliance, outlined the main points in the IHRB investigation report which included a number of interviews, statements and details of an unannounced stable inspection at Milestone Stables, the training establishment of Mr. Colin Bowe, Trainer, on Tuesday 9th March 2021.

Evidence was heard from Mr. James, Mr. Thomas O’ Shea, veterinary surgeon, Mrs. Olive James and the panel also considered written submissions from Mr. Kieran McGrath, Irish Child & Family Institute, Mr. Micheál Stafford, accountant and a medical report.

In his evidence, Mr. James said he first became aware of the video late on Monday 1st March 2021 when a friend of his made him aware that it had been posted on social media. He stated that he was unaware that such a video existed and he was heartbroken when he saw it. He recalled the incident although admitted he had initially got the date wrong and from the records of Mr. Colin Bowe, the Trainer at whose premises the incident took place, it was discovered that it was actually 27th August 2016 and not April as had initially been suggested. Mr. James explained that he was 22 at the time and was riding out for Mr. Bowe when the incident occurred. He said that a few members of staff were asked to assist with the horse, Three Hail Marys, who had died of a heart attack during exercise and that a senior member of staff encouraged him to jump on the mare and being young and naïve he reacted to the peer pressure and did so for a couple of seconds before patting the mare as he got off her. He admitted that it was a stupid act but not one that he would try to defend as that would only add insult to injury but he did immediately recognise his wrongdoing. His action of patting the mare as he got off her was an attempt to show some respect having immediately realised what he had done. He confirmed that the member of staff who recorded the video no longer works with Mr. Bowe.
Mr. James also provided details of his current situation within racing in that he continues to ride out for Mr. Bowe and has also obtained his own Handler’s Permit to allow him have horses to run in Point-to-Point races in Ireland. The latter being an enterprise he has invested heavily in to provide state of the art facilities and also in purchasing horses to run. He concluded by saying that this incident has had a bad effect on his family as that he had let everyone down at home. In conclusion Mr. James accepted that he was in breach of Rule 272(i).

In his evidence, Mr. O’Shea said he knew the James family through his role as a veterinary surgeon having worked with them on their farm since 1998. He stated that he had witnessed Mr. James maturing from a child into a young adult who started working for Mr. Bowe. He has now progressed to develop an impressive training establishment for himself. In his experience of Mr. James he has always shown a love and respect for animals and a love for horses, so much that he would often be on hand to assist where possible with any veterinary care at Mr. Bowe’s and he would show an interest in the wellbeing of the horses being treated. Mr. O’Shea added that he was not a regular user of social media himself but he was aware of some of the appalling comments being directed at Mr. James and in his opinion, this had caused Mr. James and his family huge stress. He said that the video is not typical of Mr. James in any way.

In her evidence, Mrs. James confirmed that she had seen the video but only watched it once. She said that it had floored her entire family and was not at all characteristic of her son. She recalled his love for all animals and the numerous occasions in which he rescued abandoned or lost animals and that throughout his entire live his consistent love has been for animals.
Having considered the evidence, the Referrals Committee found Mr. James 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.

The decision read out by Ms. Justice Leonie Reynolds is set out below.

By way of background, this matter came to light arising from a social media video circulated on Twitter on 2nd March showing Mr. James mounting a dead mare for a few seconds and then patting her as he dismounts. It appears that the animal had died of a heart attack on the gallops on the day in question.

The whole incident took approximately 11 seconds and it is clear that Mr. James was encouraged by a senior member of staff to mount the dead animal. This footage was videoed in August 2016 at a time when Mr. James was 22 years of age and working in Mr. Bowe’s yard. It is clear that a number of other individuals were present also.

The matter was brought to the attention of the IHRB and an immediate investigation was undertaken by Mr. Chris Gordon and Mr. Declan Buckley, including interviews with Mr. James, Mr. Brendan Walsh and Mr. Colin Bowe. Upon completion of this investigation the matter was referred on to the Referrals Committee, culminating in this hearing.

Evidence was heard from Mr. James who indicated that he first became aware of the incident when it was brought to his attention by one of his friends. He was unaware that the incident had been videoed and had never seen the footage prior to that. He expressed his immediate sense of shame at his actions and his remorse for same. He made an immediate statement acknowledging his wrongdoing, offered no excuses and apologised for his unacceptable behaviour and lack of judgement to all concerned. He further accepted the reputational damage he had done to the racing industry and offered his full cooperation to the IHRB in the investigation.

By way of explanation, he stated he was assisting in the removal of the deceased mare when he was encouraged by a senior staff member to mount the animal, which he mindlessly did. He stated he felt immediate regret for his actions and patted the animal by way of a remorseful gesture. The committee accepts his evidence in this regard and are satisfied that he was responding to peer pressure on the occasion.

Mr. James outlined the devasting effect and consequences of his actions, both for himself and his family, since the circulation of the video. He also outlined the very severe consequences a suspension of his licence and permit will have for him, both by way of reputational damage and financial loss.

The committee also heard evidence from his mother who stated the events of the past 10 days had a very severe impact on all the family in terms of the significant upset and distress arising from the coverage and reaction to the incident. Fortunately, the family have received unwavering support from the local community and this was independently verified by Mr. O’Shea in his evidence.

In addition, Mr. O’Shea stated that he was struck by the very significant toll the events had taken on Mr. James and volunteered to attend today to give evidence on his behalf. He outlined how the incident in question was out of character and inconsistent with his acquaintance with Mr. James over the years. He described him as somebody who had great empathy for and respect for animals and was surprised by the footage. He stated it did not reflect the true character of Mr. James.

In addition to the evidence, the committee received numerous testimonials outlining Mr. James’ previous good character as well as a number of expert reports which were admitted into evidence without any formal proof of same.

At the outset, it was accepted by the parties that this matter is to be considered in the context of Rule 272(i) which states as follows:

Any person involved in horseracing who, within the jurisdiction of the IHRB;
(i) Whether verbally or by conduct or behaviour, acts in a manner which is prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing (whether or not such behaviour or conduct, verbal or otherwise is associated directly with horseracing)
shall be in breach of these Rules and liable to sanction.

There is no suggestion that is a horse welfare issue, the only issue is the reputational damage to the racing industry.

Mr. James has not contested the breach and the only issue for determination by the Referrals Committee is the appropriate sanction to be imposed.

The committee is of the view that the video shows extremely poor judgement by Mr. James and a complete absence of respect for the deceased animal. It has understandably resulted in a public outcry and offended all those who are involved in the racing industry and beyond. There can be no doubt but that it has caused damage to the reputation and the integrity of horseracing and this is accepted by Mr. James.
In determining the appropriate sanction, the committee has sought to balance the aggravating and mitigating factors in this case. In particular, the committee is cognisant of the following:

1) The poor judgement exercised by Mr. James on the day in question

2) The inevitable reputational damage to the horseracing industry consequent upon his actions

3) The lack of respect shown to the deceased mare which has resulted in public condemnation

By way of mitigation we have considered the following

1) His immediate expression of remorse which is undoubtedly genuine

2) His fulsome apology to all concerned

3) His acknowledgment of the folly of his actions and how they might reasonably be construed

4) His cooperation with the IHRB

5) His relative immaturity in circumstances where he was 22 years old at the time,

6) The incident having occurred in 2016 and where he was being encouraged by a senior member of staff

7) Notwithstanding his appalling earlier behaviour, his patting gesture as he dismounts suggests he regained control of his facilities and belatedly showed some respect to the deceased mare.

8) The historic nature of the offence in circumstances where all the evidence before the committee today is that Mr. James is somebody who has a genuine compassion for horses and where his offending behaviour was wholly out of character.

9) His overwhelming sense of guilt, embarrassment and shame in terms of what he has visited on himself, his family and the racing industry.

10) The undoubted stress caused for him on his family arising from his action

11) The negative impact on his reputation and indeed all the negative media coverage surrounding his actions

12) The very significant financial consequences for him in terms of the significant investment he has made on both stock and facilities.

Mr James is now 27 years of age and holds both a Qualified Riders licence and a Handler’s Permit.

The Committee accepts that the appropriate sentence, as previously imposed by the Referrals Committee in the Elliott case, is a 12 month suspension of both licence and permit as the offences are remarkably similar.

However, the distinguishing features in this case of merit are as follows:

1) The historic nature of the offending behaviour which occurred approximately four and a half years ago in circumstances where all the evidence before the committee suggests that Mr. James’ behaviour has been impeccable and otherwise beyond reproach

2) His relative youth and immaturity at the time of the offence

3) His behaviour immediately afterwards suggesting that he did retain an element of empathy for the deceased mare

In all the circumstances, the committee are satisfied the appropriate sanction to impose is a 12 month suspension of his Qualified Riders licence and Handler’s Permit. The committee proposes to suspend the last eight months of that period for the reasons as outlined so as a four month period is served.

The Committee also notes an undertaking provided by Mr. James that he will not attend a Racemeeting or a Point to Point for the four month period of his suspension.

The commencement date for sanction will by agreement be 15th March 2021.

In addition the committee proposes to award the IHRB the costs sought in the sum of €1,000.

The case was presented by Ms. Cliodhna Guy, IHRB Head of Licensing, Legal and Compliance and Mr. James was represented by Mr. Patrick Kennedy, Solicitor of Patrick J. O’Meara & Co., Solicitors Thurles.

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