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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Whipping up a storm

Jockeys with whips up in a driving finishJockeys with whips up in a driving finish
© Photo Healy Racing

UK racing has really got itself into a proper old mess over the use of the whip and it’s all largely its own fault.

The UK racing authorities started off by trying to appease a small vocal minority opposed to the whip, but they now seem to have gone so far down this rabbit hole that they have lost sight of their original objective.

What started out as an exercise to quell genuine opposition to the use of the whip by anti-racing and animal welfare groups has ended up with the racing authorities turning in on itself to thwart a perceived, but somewhat unfounded, threat to the sport from the wider public.

The simple truth is that the general public has little interest, and even less knowledge about horse racing, but if they were pushed to give an opinion on the use of the whip in the sport would almost unanimously be opposed to its use altogether.

Making subtle changes to how and when the whip is used by jockeys and altering the construction of the whips themselves has been happening across all racing jurisdictions for many years, but I’m not convinced any of this has registered with the general public. All the public knows for sure is that horses are whipped during races.

Looking at the number of times a horse can be permitted to be struck with the whip varies dramatically across different racing jurisdictions. The new UK whip rules limit the number of strikes to 6 Flat or 7 National Hunt. Ireland is 8 or 9. Australia is 5 times prior to the final 100 metres and then unlimited. France has a total of 5 but this will soon be reduced to 4. Hong Kong and Japan don’t actually stipulate any limit while the Scandinavian countries have banned the use of the whip for encouragement altogether although riders can still carry it.

In the USA most states are now adopting their Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority guidelines which essentially impose a limit of 6 strikes before penalties are imposed. The sanctions tend to be relatively lenient when a rider breaks these rules. A rider can actually hit a horse 15 times and only receive a $500 fine and a 3-day suspension, though there is a totting up system for repeat offenders.

The new UK rules sit somewhere in the middle when it comes to strikes with the whip, but are far more wide ranging when you take into account the limitations imposed on the whip action, force of the strike and area of the horse that can be struck.

Overall the introduction of these latest alterations to whip rules in the UK have been handled very poorly by the authorities and has exposed a disconnect between the regulators and those they regulate, necessitating a number of eleventh hour changes to the proposed new rules.

The onus is firmly on the jockeys to adapt to the new rules or face severe sanctions which can ultimately include disqualification of the horses and long suspensions from riding.

After a one month trial period the new rules are now in force and are likely to put the whole issue firmly in the spotlight over the four days of the Cheltenham Festival in just three weeks time.

The UK authorities are fully aware that Cheltenham is one of the few times in the year when the sport of horse racing becomes mainstream and is covered by all major media outlets.

Considering that the majority of jockeys riding and winning races at Cheltenham next month will be Irish-based riders who did not have the benefit of the trial period there is a real possibility that these new rules will come back to bite the UK racing authorities.

It is more than likely that a large number of Irish jockeys will fall foul of the rules by using their whip above shoulder height or in the wrong area on the horse, never mind striking the horse more than seven times in a driving finish.

Should some rider resort to using it eleven or more times and subsequently get their horse disqualified it will simply keep the mainstream media focused on the sport for all the wrong reasons and make the whip a far bigger deal than it might have been if the authorities hadn’t tinkered with the rules in the first place.

Advocates of the whip tell us that the new ProCush foam padded versions don’t actually hurt the horses and it’s more about the noise they make that spurs the horses on. There is also the argument that the whip is an important safety aid for the jockey should a horse try to veer off a straight line or attempt to run out. The second point is certainly valid, there are genuine reasons why a jockeys should carry a whip, but it’s less easy to convince people that striking a horse with a whip doesn’t hurt them, regardless of the composition of the whip.

Perhaps, rather than constantly tweaking with the number of times a jockey can use the whip during a race it would make more sense to try and find a suitable protective covering for the horses’ hindquarters to end the cruelty argument once and for all. It would be the equivalent of muzzling the dogs in Coursing where they can still bark and chase the hare, but can’t actually bite it.

The jockeys could then whip away to their heart’s content while the rest of us would be safe in the knowledge that the horse couldn’t be harmed.