Horse trainer’s animal cruelty hearing begins

Trainer Paul Harris denied an animal cruelty-related charge laid by the Racing Integrity Board....
Trainer Paul Harris denied an animal cruelty-related charge laid by the Racing Integrity Board. Photo: Star Media
A Racing Integrity Board hearing investigating allegations of animal cruelty by a leading Canterbury thoroughbred horse trainer is underway.

Paul Harris has been charged under the rules of racing with failing to take all reasonable steps to ensure the physical health needs of five-year-old bay mare Riverfalls.

He is jointly charged with Rebecca Rae, who housed Riverfalls at a Loburn property as she spelled after the final race of her 33-start career at Wingatui on June 6, 2021.

Harris and Rae deny the charge, which stemmed from a visit by two RIB investigators to Paul Harris Racing on South Eyre Rd, Swannanoa, on October 12, 2021.

An emaciated Riverfalls was euthanised on veterinary advice about three hours after the investigators arrived at the property, acting on information received.

Harris trained Riverfalls on behalf of a syndicate that leased the horse from owners in the Waikato.

The hearing, which is scheduled to resume next month, opened before committee chair Warwick Gendall QC and Noel McCutcheon at Riccarton Racecourse last week, with the proceedings dominated by the RIB’s case.

RIB lawyer Steve Symon said its evidence focused on the failure to provide veterinary care early enough for Riverfalls, whose appearance shocked a veterinarian, who felt “blindsided” when asked to treat the horse.

Dr Lillian Bonner was initially contacted by Rae on September 14, 2021 and they exchanged messages via text.

“She (Rae) did say she looked bad and it looked like she was starving her,” Bonner told the hearing.

Riverfalls at the Karaka Sales in January 2018. Photo: New Zealand Bloodstock
Riverfalls at the Karaka Sales in January 2018. Photo: New Zealand Bloodstock
After delays due to scheduling issues, Bonner saw Riverfalls at the Harris stables on September 30, the same day she had transferred from Loburn.

“At the time I expected to do a nutrition consult, perhaps treat for ulcers, look at teeth and bodywork.

“I walked over to the box and I was shocked at how emaciated she was,” said Bonner, who rated Riverfalls’ body condition score as 1 or 2 out of 10.

Bonner spoke to Harris telling him the horse was in a seriously poor condition and it could not have happened overnight.

“He agreed and said he thought the horse may have been poisoned,” she said.

Bonner, who said she did not assume the mare was being starved, formulated a refeeding plan and a course of oral deworming medication Panacur to treat internal parasites.

“I didn’t want to be accusatory, I just didn’t have it in my mind that any of this was intentional,” she said.

“In summary, I thought I was blindsided going to treat a horse for loss of condition to find emaciation. I was surprised no veterinarian had seen the horse prior.”

Bonner felt Riverfalls should have been treated a month before she saw her. 

The horse’s condition deteriorated further and veterinarian Dr Alisa Corser told the hearing euthanasia was the only option when she was summoned to the property by RIB investigator Simon Irving.

RIB investigator Kylie Williams took photos and a video of Riverfalls that were produced for the committee. They are currently subject to a non-publication order.

Corser, who is contracted to the RIB, made the decision to euthanise Riverfalls in conjunction with Dr Hamish Rankin, who carried out the procedure.

She described Riverfalls condition as “the worst I’d seen in my experience outside a hospital environment”.

“There is no doubt she was suffering, no doubt Riverfalls would have been in pain,” Corser said.

Riverfalls was suffering from severe emaciation and showing signs of colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine which is often fatal.

Defence counsel Stephanie Grieve asked if colitis could cause emaciation.

“It can, but it doesn’t usually cause emaciation in that rapid of a time frame, in my experience,” Corser said.