Donn's Articles » Whip rules

Whip rules

One of the main difficulties with the old whip rules was that, the bigger the race, the less effective the rules. If another crack or two was going to make the difference between victory and defeat in a Grand National or a Prince of Wales’s Stakes, then it was a no-brainer for the rider: administer the cracks and suffer the suspension. The problem with the rules and the penalty structure was that the upside of winning a big race was greater than the downside of the punishment that would ensue.

That is a major problem for an area that seems to be more about public perception than it is about animal welfare. It didn’t make sense that the rules were at their weakest when the audience was at its highest.

This year’s Grand National appears to have been the catalyst for a major overhaul. It wasn’t just the fact that Jason Maguire hit Ballabriggs 17 times on the run-in, there were also the by-passed fences and the stricken horses and the post-race buckets of water. The public outcry was so strong, the BHA were under so much pressure, that significant changes were apparently inevitable.

There has, of course, been much discussion on the whole whip issue since the new rules were announced two weeks ago. The imposition of stringent penalties is not a negative per se. In any walk of life, if there is a rule in place, the penalty for breaching it should be severe enough so as to be a deterrent. However, there are several areas that remain unaddressed, or unsatisfactorily addressed, with the new whip rules.

There are several potential long-term positives that could be derived from a less liberal use of the whip. There is the potential for the general heightening of jockeyship skills, the implied need for young riders to develop their ability to ride a race, to ride a finish, without the need to rely on the whip. There is also the potential for the general betterment of the breed, the possibility that the more willing horses will be more successful, and that they will be the progenitors of the future.

However, it is not the improvement of riding skills or the improvement of the breed that is at the root of this change. If there is a benefit to be gained there, it is indirect. And the animal welfare issue can only be a small part of it. Nobody likes to see horses being flailed, horses being abused, but all the top riders say that the new air-cushioned whip doesn’t hurt the horse, that it doesn’t even hurt a human. Some of them have offered to publicly take six of the best in order to prove the point. Richard Hughes says that it is more the swooshing noise of the whip than the actual impact that encourages a horse to run faster.

So it is almost wholly to do with public perception. But who is this public and what is their current perception? Is it the general public, or is it a specific public who shout loudly? How many letters or emails or phone calls to the BHA or the RSPCA does it take to effect change? And will this public be satisfied now that flat riders can hit a horse seven times, or will they see it as a sign of weakness in the BHA and press on, buoyed by this success, to a greater ultimate goal?

There are issues regarding the detail, like how are eight strikes in a three-mile chase equitable with seven strikes in a five-furlong flat race, and how are five strikes on the run-in at Cartmel or Kelso the same as five-strikes on the run-in at Kempton or Newton Abbot? And there is the issue regarding the pace at which the changes have been implemented: no trial period, no bedding-in process. This is a wholesale change for jockeys which will have a huge impact on how they ply their trade. To not at least allow a period of leniency seems a little harsh and a little hasty.

There is also the issue of timing. The decision was obviously taken to implement the changes before this Saturday’s QIPCO Champions’ Day at Ascot, the richest and one of the most important day’s racing ever staged on British soil. Was it not too important a day for British racing to risk domination by headlines about jockey suspensions instead of great racing performances?

Much has been made about the certainty of the new rule, black and white. Hit a horse seven times and you are okay, hit a horse eight times and you are not. However, use of the whip is not a black and white issue. Sometimes a judgement call is required. The fact that the new rules effectively do away with judgement calls is not necessarily a positive.

In Ireland, a sub-committee of the Turf Club met on Friday to review this issue. Before deciding if any alterations need to be made to the whip rules in Ireland, they will monitor developments in the UK over the coming weeks and months.

They will not be alone.

© The Racing Post, 11th October 2011