In the hubbub of the Kentucky Derby disqualification drama, replays and still images have been analyzed and watched thousands of times as viewers try to get a handle on Maximum Security's path of travel and the resulting domino effect. One thing people probably weren't looking at closely, however, was the whips the jockeys were carrying.
All riders in this year's Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby went to the post with the new 360 Gentle Touch (360 GT) riding crop, engineered by retired Eclipse Award-winning jockey Ramon Dominguez. Riders at Laurel Park adopted the crop's use in April.
Until the DQ of Maximum Security took center stage, the use of the whip (often referred to as a “riding crop” in an attempt at rebranding) was one of the central debates in racing, prompted by The Stronach Group's suggestions earlier this year it would do away with the whip for any purpose other than safety or correction of a drifting horse. That declaration, which became a rule unanimously approved by the California Horse Racing Board, was met with displeasure by the Jockeys' Guild, which claims its members need the whip. Horseplayers weighed in to suggest they preferred riders to use them for encouragement. On the opposite side of the aisle, animal rights groups have long demonized use of the whip, adding it in a long list of perceived abuses in the sport.
Dominguez is hopeful the 360 GT can bridge the gap between the two perspectives.
The use of the 360 GT, although popularized in the wake of the Santa Anita safety debates, was not engineered as a pop-up solution to the talk of the last five months. In fact, Dominguez has been perfecting the instrument's design for a decade, going back to when he was still riding.
Cushion whips were the last attempt at making riding crops less harsh, added to the repertoire of jockeys in the United Kingdom roughly a decade ago and heralded as the most humane products on the market. They replaced the more conventional whips with short poppers at the end sometimes accompanied by short leather fringe. Cushion whips have wider, longer poppers for better force distribution. When American flat jockeys first embraced the cushion whip in 2008, they noted it had less bend in mid-air than traditional whips, and the cushion whips produced a louder sound but seemed to be gentler on the horses' skin.
Dominguez still thought there could be room for improvement. Even the poppers on cushion crops, which are made of leather, had two seams on either side where the popper was stitched onto the whip. Those seams could become sharp if brought down sideways onto a horse's flank, he worried.
“At the time I was riding at Delaware Park. It was something that was clearly a positive change from what we'd previously had. I started using it and at the same time I noticed there were a couple things that could improve, so I started working on a prototype,” he said. “It wasn't until three years ago when I decided it was time to either stop this or bring it to fruition, so I started working on getting it produced in a professional way.
“It has been a long process. We have learned a lot and at the end of the day we're really proud of what we've been able to accomplish.”
He realized early on the only way to eliminate the seams was to have a whip with a completely cylindrical popper, ideally one with some give to it. After his retirement from race riding, Dominguez was able to pursue materials testing in earnest.
He landed on a dense, highly durable foam material which is most easily compared to a very thick Nerf-type ball, though slightly firmer. A lot of the materials he tried were either soft enough but not brittle or durable but too hard.
“There were many, many, many materials I tested,” Dominguez said. “I realized foam would be the way to go because it's soft, it's light; some foams can have water-proof capabilities but also shock absorption is key. Now when we talk about foams, there's a huge variety of foams and some of them actually can be very hard, so we were able to work with a company to create a foam that meets the needs of the jockeys but also what is required for horse racing, given the weather this will be exposed to.”
The popper on a 360 GT appears wider and slightly longer than a cushion whip, and the density and size of the popper also means the whole whip flexes significantly more as it travels through the air as compared to a cushion whip. The foam also has the effect of making the popper “bounce” off a horse without leaving a sting. This writer struggled, even with determined swings, to create a sensation on her own leg beyond a noisy tap. Though not a perfect comparison, hitting a surface with the 360 GT is akin to wielding a foam pool noodle – it produces significant noise but is hard to weaponize.
“The shock absorption of this is amazing,” Dominguez said. “Yes, the foam is soft but it's able to absorb the shock very well and still remain intact. There's certainly a little bit of a spring effect where this bounces back, because it's not really having a big impact.”
Although more expensive than cushion whips, Dominguez also says the 360 GT is meant to last longer. Durability has long been an issue for jockeys, who use their equipment multiple times a day in all manner of gritty and damp conditions. Whips have to hold up to freezing weather during winter races, and may be left in a hot car in the summer. The 360 GT's specially-formulated foam is up to all those challenges, Dominguez says.
So far, the reaction from jockeys has been positive; Dominguez said they know some kind of reform is needed to quell public concerns, which have reached a boiling point. At the same time, he's also aware that to someone standing on the rail there are two differences between his whip and others: it appears larger and it's louder. And those differences aren't subtle.
“One thing about the visual is the popper is bigger but also a great attribute that this has is the fact this foam has been made to be heard. So when the jockeys get after horses, this has a loud popping noise and that is awesome,” he said. “The jockeys right away said it's great because sound is one of the best ways for us to encourage our horses. Turning for home you can just chirp to your horses and they will respond greatly. It's no different here. At the same time, we need people to know when you hear a loud noise, that's actually good.”
Dominguez wants to get the 360 GT into the hands not just of jockeys but of fans so they can feel the difference for themselves.
“It's good when you read about something, but I think nothing can substitute first-hand experience when someone can see and feel this and realize this is a cylindrical shape,” he said. “That would be something great because you would be stopping the preconceived ideas that are not really rooted in facts. There are so many of those out there.”
A perspective from across the pond
If the 360 GT isn't enough to put the minds of fans and jockey sat ease, those advocating for heavier restrictions on whip use may win out. What would that look like? Retired jockey Vanessa Ryall has some perspective.
A graduate of the North American Racing Academy, Ryall has ridden races both in the United States and in Sweden and Norway, where whip rules are very different. Ryall spent a summer riding for her stepfather in Norway, where she became the first female rider to win the Norwegian Derby.
In Norway, whips have been banned outside 2-year-old races since 1982. Ryall says she didn't ride many 2-year-old races while she was there, but whip use was only permitted to correct course for green horses, not for encouragement. As a result, she remembers the sticks other riders carried were much shorter – after all, they only had to reach the horse's shoulder, not around the rider's leg to the horse's flank. As a result, jockeys relied more heavily on encouraging horses forward with hands and heels, with mixed results.
“There are a couple of riders over there who will actually try kicking with their heels which, you're riding so short you're sort of kicking the pad anyway,” she said. “I tried it and I don't know it didn't really work for me.”
In Sweden, Ryall was permitted to use the whip but there was a limit on the number of strikes she could deliver in succession. In between groups of strikes, she was required to return the hand carrying the whip to her reins to make it easier for officials (and for her) to keep count of how many strikes she'd delivered. She was also limited in how high she could raise her hand when using the whip, which required some retraining of her muscle memory.
Here in the States, riders have sometimes pushed back against hit limits, claiming it's too difficult to keep count of the number of strikes they've delivered in the heat of the stretch. While that may seem far-fetched to those of us watching from an armchair, Ryall points out race riding already requires mental multi-tasking.
“In Sweden you can use the whip but you can only hit three times in a row. You've got to count and that is tough, especially if you're coming from the U.S. and you're allowed to use the whip more. You have to focus on 'Wait how many times did I hit the horse?'” she said. “I'd come back to the jocks' room and realize I hit four times instead of three. It's tough because when you're in it, there's adrenaline and you're just trying to get to the wire first. If you stop to think about what you just did, the race is already over.”
After her many and various experiences, Ryall still prefers to have a crop of some kind on a horse to correct course, but she says she would only need to use it on the shoulder to do that, not on the flank. She also thinks that if the day comes when whips are banned or restricted to safety corrections in American racing, it's going to be tough for many jockeys to change their muscle memory – which gives riders with experience elsewhere an advantage.
She and Dominguez also agree that taking whips away completely will create an unlevel playing field. While some horses can and do respond to “hands and heels” riding or verbal cues from jockeys to begin a charge, others do not, and Ryall knows from experience the jockey has no way to tell which kind of horse they're on until they're already in the stretch.
“The jockeys are very open and they understand we are living right now in a time where because of misconceptions about the riding crop, the future of this safety tool could be in jeopardy,” said Dominguez. “Any of us who have ridden a racehorse know that it's important to have them, not only for safety but also when it comes to racing. Not every horse is going to be just handy, giving you their best run at will. You're putting some horses at a huge disadvantage if you can't encourage them with the riding crop.”
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