Donn's Articles » Whip lash

Whip lash

There was no sharp intake of breath on Friday when the British Horseracing Authority’s Review Group publicised their modifications to the new whip rules that were introduced just two weeks ago.

While the new limit of seven strikes of the whip in a flat race and eight in a National Hunt race still stand, the limit of five strikes inside the final furlong or after the final fence or hurdle has been dropped. Also, jockeys will not forfeit their share of the prize money unless they are banned for seven days or more, as opposed to three days or more.

Significantly, the modifications have been applied restrospectively. All whip bans incurred since the introduction of the new rules on 10th October are now subject to the modified rules. This means that the two most high-profile sufferers under the new regime, Richard Hughes and Christophe Soumillon, are absolved. Hughes’s 15-day ban does not apply, Soumillon’s five-day ban does not apply, and he gets to keep the £52,000 in prize money that he earned for winning the Qipco Champion Stakes on Cirrus Des Aigles at Ascot last Saturday.

So everyone is happy then, right? Wrong.

Much of the debate over the last two weeks has centred on the penalties and the application of the new rules, without considering the fundamental question: why? In assessing the new rules, most commentators eased their way in with the opening gambit that something had to be done. But why did something have to be done?

Becasue of aesthetics, that’s why. Because of public perception. It goes without saying that nobody – least of all the people involved in racing – want to see horses being abused in the name of sport. Hence, the whip has been signficantly modified. The current whip is air-cushioned, designed not to cause a horse pain. The jockeys say that it doesn’t hurt the horse, they say that it is more the noise of it than the impact of it that encourages a horse to run faster. More than that, the BHA’s own research says that it doesn’t cause a horse pain.

So why the need to restrict the use of the whip further? Becasue it doesn’t look good. Because it creates a bad impression on the general public. Not because it hurts or harms the horse. This is an exercise in public relations, not in animal welfare.

One of the most bizarre elements about the entire episode is that, again, according to the BHA’s own research, the people who are most upset by the use of the whip are people who have no interest in racing, and people who do not understand the use of the whip in racing. In what other sport would you see a change in the rules because the people who have no interest in the sport don’t like the rule or don’t understand it?

There are other strange elements. Apart from the decision to introduce the new rules five days before one of the most important day’s racing ever staged on British soil (jobs have been lost for less), and the nonsense that was the five-stirkes-inside-the-final-furlong rule, there is the settling on the arbitrary number of seven strikes in a flat race, eight strikes in a National Hunt race. If this is all about aesthetics, how does seven strikes look okay but eight strikes look bad?

This week, some of the top flat jockeys have said that seven strikes is not enough. Would eight look bad? Would nine? And if seven strikes is not enough in a flat race on fast ground, how is there any way that eight strikes is going to be enough in a three-mile chase on heavy ground in the depths of winter?

The BHA say that, during their 10-month long consultation process, they consulted with all of racing’s stakeholders. However, if so many top jockeys are now saying that they don’t agree with the new rules, you have to wonder how effective the period of consultation was? If they were consulting with the right people, and if their consultation process was efficient and effective, surely the sportspeople who are going to have to play by the new rules would be supportive of them?

The jockeys have called for a reduction in the severity of the penalties, but that misses the point. There is no sense in having rules if the penalty for transgressing them is not sufficiently harsh so as to encourage the protagonists to abide by them. Either the rule makes sense or it does not. You cannot say, the rule is fine, but the penalty for breaking it is too harsh.

That was the problem with the old rules as they stood: there was no incentive to abide by them in the big races, the valuable races. If one or two more strikes might have made the difference between defeat and victory, then one or two more strikes were administered. The upside of winning a Grand National or a Prince of Wales’s Stakes was far greater than the downside of the penalty for breaking the rules. At the big meetings, in the big races, riders regularly broke the rules, and were prepared to suffer the resultant ban.

The disqualification of the horse if the jockey breaks the rules is not as outlandish a suggestion as some think, as long as the rules are right. If you have won a race using unfair means, if you have broken the rules, why should you be allowed to keep the race? And why should the runner-up, who remained within the rules, not benefit?

In order for the imposition of severe penalties to be justifiable, however, a set of rules needs to be sensible and it needs to be equitable. The new whip rules are neither.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd October 2011