Time Out On the Whip

Tue, Apr 26, 2011

Horse Racing

Time Out On the Whip

I’ve been as guilty as anyone – guiltier than most perhaps – of rushing to fix bayonets in the battle of the stick but I do think a bit of calm contemplation, along with the BHA review is what is now required. Anyway here’s how I’ve summed up where I am as of now.

It’s been a week of passionate debate within the sport. The issue of whip use has seen battle lines emerge surprisingly quickly. Let’s call a brief ceasefire though to remember that we’re all on the same side here. We all love racing. We all want what’s best for the racehorse and what’s best for the sport. So, as my friend, colleague and adversary would say ‘Time out!’.

The genesis of our current conflict can be traced to this year’s Grand National. Racing lost control of the coverage of the sport’s biggest day. The media narrative ran freely, with a momentum of its own. The response of Aintree, the Horsemens Group, Racing for Change and the BHA (all of whom should have been prepared) was too slow. It was a sobering experience to see the sport portrayed so violently and so luridly. Lessons can and must be learned from that.

Let’s rewind though. Back to 2010. The abiding image of that Grand National is of AP McCoy crossing the line. Upright in the irons, a guttural roar bursting from him, and a whip (yes, a whip) brandished high. The outstanding jockey of our generation in exultant, passionate celebration of a hard fought, lung bursting, whip cracking triumph. We’re told there is a ‘groundswell of public opinion against the whip’. Did the public recoil from this visceral image of whip wielding elation?

Well, no they did not. The public voted one of the strongest jockeys of any generation its BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did the public recoil from an event which stretches horses to the absolute limits of physical endeavour and endurance? Well, no they did not. They tuned into the 2011 Grand National in numbers more than a million up on 2010. Aintree racecourse sold out on Grand National day and betting turnover was ‘through the roof’ according to delighted bookmakers. And post the Grand National furore?During the Easter holiday weekend racecourses reported terrific turnouts as families enjoyed the weather and the sport. Straw polls conducted by various journalists at various courses – including Towcester – could find no evidence of a ‘groundswell of public opinion’ against the whip.

Does all this mean we should be complacent? No, of course not. It does mean we should be calm though.

We should be willing to listen too with interest and humility to views that are different from our own. I personally had no issue with the finish of the Grand National but I need to respect the fact that some people did. Nor should I, or other advocates of the status quo, forget that we are in a state of constant change and development. The climax of long distance high value contests have long provided the biggest focal point in this debate. The spectacle of soft ground Cheltenham Festival finishes was one of the drivers of our current guidelines. It’s also -let’s be clear and honest – why we moved the final hurdle at Cheltenham as recently as last year.

Nor can any of us ignore that when it comes to whip offences we have some serial offenders and some recurring crime scenes. We do have work to do. It’s hard work though, not simply a matter of taking the path of least resistance in pursuit of an imaginary easy fix. We can address remaining issues through calm but rigorous analysis and by carefully calibrated amendments to either whip guidelines, or penalties, or both. These are precisely the areas that the BHA review is considering. We should give it our attention and our input and our support. We should let it do its work.

We must also be better at telling the story of how much good work takes place. The whip we use in this country is an example of world leading technology in the field. The regulations and the guidelines in place are exemplars of good practice, as is our willingness to constantly reassess and review our stance; as evidenced by the current BHA review on the matter.

What we must not do though is lose sight of what it is that we’re doing and what is at stake. There are those for whom no amount of adjustment to the rules will be sufficient. For those extremists the actions of Towcester are as manna from heaven. Concede that the whip is ‘cruel’ and those who would destroy the sport are halfway to their objective. Why? Once the whip is gone it is a very simple scientific paper that will demonstrate that the whip causes far fewer instances of pain and distress, far fewer chronic ailments, far fewer chronic injuries, far fewer catastrophic injuries and far fewer deaths than the act of racing horses itself. Ban the whip on ‘moral’ grounds and racing faces check mate. And, as is often the case in check mates, we won’t have seen it coming.That’s how high the stakes are.

The horse itself has its future in our hands. We should never forget that without the thoroughbred we have no sport and that without racing we would have no thoroughbred. Ours is one of the toughest competitive sports that there is. It is also, in its harmony of human and horse, one of our most ancient partnerships. At the core of that partnership has always been the extension of the animal to the limit of its endeavour and endurance. We’re all on the same side we all want what’s best for the racehorse and what’s best for the sport. We should be rightly proud of our record and we should argue our case with due humility but with strength and with confidence too.

So, in our time out mode, let’s just remember that from Phar Lap, to Nijinsky, to Sea the Stars and from Arkle, to Desert Orchid, to Kauto Star our heroes were forged in the fires of contest. Their feats remarkable only because of racing’s extraordinary examination of their speed and stamina and courage and heart. These, our stars, were made through the test of racing. Let’s step lightly as we consider our direction, for we tread amongst our dreams.

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7 Responses to “Time Out On the Whip”

  1. Tonk. Says:

    Language has become very important in our society. In a political context, language is used to manipulate people towards a prefered opinion.
    I was recently approached by a fund raiser of the RSPCA, I said that I used to support their cause but, now that they act as investigator, prosecuter and often, the Judge in animal cruelty cases, I feel the charity has become little more than a government organisation and an extension to the criminal justice system. The guy’s response was;
    “So you’re in favour of animal cruelty?” Which of course I am not.
    I had a similar situation when I told a wooly left winger during a discussion, that I felt children sometime benefit from a smack to which his response was to say that I must support abusing children….Although these points are off topic, they illustrate how many sections of our society, including the media at large, use language to control thoughts and behaviour and try to shame people to “go with the herd.”
    I fear that, unless we get our act together within the racing industry, we will soon find this manipulative use of language used against us….ie; You want to use the whip; you support abusing horses etc.

    Personally, I feel the current whip rules strike a good balance between the encouragement of the horse and protecting its health and welfare needs. The ONLY change I may support, would be that rather than the jockey getting a ban, the horse is disqualified. This would focus the mind of the jockey and, I suspect, trainers and owners would ensure that repeat offenders that over use the whip would struggle to get rides.

    If we don’t pull our fingers out, the animal rights brigade will get the upper hand and we will be unable to even mention the whip without being branded animal abusers.

  2. R Hills is God Says:

    Maybe they should institute a rule where a whip can only be used a maximum number of times, the maximum determined by, say, a rolling average of the number of time the whip has been used previously on the horse in question or a rolling average of the number of times the jockey in question has used it on drifters.

    A P McCoy wants to use the whip on Get Me Out of Here in the county hurdle? Fine – but he’s restricted to a couple of light taps. Don’t Push It in the National? I’m guessing he’d have to leave his whip in the weighing room with those prep races.

    The more I think about this idea the more I like it. It would amount to a slow (or maybe not so slow if the drifters rule was applied) phasing out of the whip.

  3. seanboyce Says:

    Tonks, couldn’t agree more with your points. Some of the RSPCAs recent activities fill me with fear. If we ever lost the current guy Muir from his role it could be v difficult. Not sure how long they’d keep the ‘royal’ of their title if they went after horses mind you! But the ‘mission creep’ in their development is a worry.

    R Hills is God – as ever a brilliant twist on a complex issue! We’d need new ‘airshot cams’ for the prep runs mind!

  4. Tim Says:

    “We’re told there is a ‘groundswell of public opinion against the whip’. Did the public recoil from this visceral image of whip wielding elation?
    Well, no they did not. The public voted one of the strongest jockeys of any generation its BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did the public recoil from an event which stretches horses to the absolute limits of physical endeavour and endurance? Well, no they did not.”

    Fair enough, and I totally agree on the need to remain calm. But as you say we shouldn’t be complacent. And that means being ready for racing to be tolerated in the future. I’d probably contest the answer to your last question there as well. Its my non-expert view that future generations will take less kindly to horses being whipped from an aesthetic point of view as much as a welfare one. As annoying as it is, more people won’t even like their kids bottoms smacked in 50 years time. They may recognise it does no harm but will think it just ‘doesn’t look right’. Racing, in my opinion, should let all this calm down and then seek to eliminate the spectacle of the whip in finishes in the next few years.

  5. seanboyce Says:

    Hi Tim, thanks for posting.
    ‘Being ready for racing to be tolerated in the future’

    We can do better than that can’t we?

    We seem to forget that ‘we’ are the ‘public’ too. Racing is the country’s second biggest spectator sport after football. I keep hearing people saying that they themselves have no issues with current situation but that they worry that others do, or will in the future. We are part of that future aren’t we? Why are ‘we’ talking in terms of being ‘tolerated’ by ‘them’?

    I do take your point that values change but they do not move (as Ashforth argues) inexorably in one direction. They ebb and flow. We agree re complacency. I agree that we can do some work on the most problematic area – which is if we’re honest the finish of long distance jumps races for the most part, after the last. Good work on your blog by the way.

    We also need to get a grip on what public opinion actually is. If next year’s National audience is down 2 or 3 million we may have an issue. Right now we don’t know if we do have the problem for which some are seeking solutions.

  6. fawwon Says:

    I am very surprised at how the issue of the whip has had more publicity in the trade press and on the forums than the issue that casts a huge shadow over racing. The Horsemans Group boycotts of races is starting to really ramp up now. The pathetic witterings of Nick Lees on ATR were a joy to behold. He looked utterly gob smacked that there weren’t owners prepared to subsidise his business!

    Then yesterday on ATR we had a trainer promoting himself by boasting about how one of his horses had won £50K in France in just three weeks! No point boasting about winning £3K at Arena racecourses is there!

  7. Patrick Says:

    I’ve no problem with the current whip rules as they stand, but if the most unlikely scenario happens and the whip is banned in Britain only to be used as a steering aid?, do you think that the other major racing nations will follow suit?, not a chance!.
    This would leave Britain almost out in the cold, and I’d guarantee that many of Britains top races would be under-subscribed by foriegn trainers/owners.
    But I do have a problem when the trangressors of the current rules get away so lightly, this is particulary prevalent in big races/big meetings where the win at all costs attitude prevails because they know that a measly two day ban is probably the most they will recieve, a ridiculous situation which makes a mockery of their own rules.
    The interference rules are hardly a deterrent either, because a jockey knows if he causes interference if he wins by more than a shorthead the chances of been chucked out are virtually nil, hardly encourages jockeys to straighten their horses out in close finishes, and I’m sure some subtle interference is deliberate on some jockeys behalf?, and if they do recieve a ban its usually just the normal couple of days, Group race glory? or two day ban at some gaff tracks? I know what I’d much prefer!.

    The BHA also have rules in place where a jockey can’t as far as I know? use the whip above shoulder height or down down the shoulder in the forehand position, which one particular Jockey does all the time, one “Kieran Fallon”, and many who have adopted his ugly forceful whip style (not very pleasing on the eye as far as public perception is concerned), ie Hayley Turner, Kirsty, Chris Catlin etc also break the rules as regards the use of the whip over shoulder height, but the BHA never act, so in a sense these Jockeys are gaining an advantage over other jockeys who use their whips in the correct position.

    Sean says “Racing is the country’s second biggest spectator sport after football”.
    But funny how people who pedal this statement within racing to bolster its poularity myth, don’t follow that up with, “the only reason its the second biggest spectator sport is because its on 362 days a year apart from a few religious dates on the calender, often with numerous meetings during the day and evening time, Bank Holidays often saturated, the major meetings like Royal Ascot, York, Goodwood, Aintree are often swelled by the once a year party animals/fashion guru’s who wouldn’t know one end of a horse to another, exaggerating the real attraction of racing with the populous.

    If you done a survey on the high street of an average sized town and asked various pedestrians what is their favourite sport, how many do you think would say racing?, not very many and thats a fact!!.
    Second most spectated, technically”, but the popularity myth can be shot down in flames, when some are willing to see through the mist and see the bigger picture.

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