Smart Whips Could Catch What Human Eyes Can’t

by | 01.24.2018 | 6:22pm

There are a few things you count on in horse racing regulation and one of them is that whip rules will always be up for debate. Animal welfare groups and some race followers claim the presence and use of the whip alienates potential racing fans. Jockeys come down on both sides of the issue – some say they need the whip to help steer the horse out of danger, while others agree it can be overused and make a conscious effort to limit it whenever possible. Jockeys are generally also reluctant to be told by non-riders how a horse might feel about the equipment.

But what if there were a device that could actually measure the force in each whip strike and warn riders when they're about to go too far? Turns out, there is – but it hasn't caught on with many racing authorities yet.

Istanbul, Turkey-based ESIT Elektronik has created a product called WhipChip, a “smart” whip which can count the number of hits to a horse and detect the intensity of hits a horse takes during a race. The whips are equipped with three electronic motion sensors measuring acceleration, rotational movement and orientation. The whips also contain a microprocessor which collects sensor data throughout a race and transfers it to a computer program, allowing race officials to decide if a rider violated rules. WhipChip can also be programmed with a given racing authority's rules and may blink an LED light on the whip itself to warn a rider if he's approaching a violation. The device's computer program can also aggregate data, giving officials a sense for individual riders' patterns of use.

The Turkish Jockey Club began testing use of the WhipChips roughly eight months ago, and ESIT Sales Engineer Ceyda Zebek said additional jurisdictions have demonstrated interest in the product since then. After a successful trial of the technology at one track, the Turkish Jockey Club has decided to broaden its use to all of its tracks, according to a recent article in European Trainer magazine.

Currently, rules surrounding whip use are usually enforced by the stewards rather the racing commission, with limited exception. Stewards use race film to decide whether a rider has hit the horse too many times or failed to wait a sufficient amount of time for a response. One official in Australia even questioned why WhipChip would even be necessary.

But Dr. Mick Peterson, renowned racing surfaces expert and director of Ag Equine Programs at the University of Kentucky, believes the device's potential to level the playing field is powerful.

In 2012, Peterson was asked to test various types of whips to see whether those with snappers (strands or flaps of material at the end) produced significantly different force from those without snappers. To test the idea, he built a mechanical arm based on the dimensions of a human jockey. He quickly realized the amount of force varied considerably not just between different whip constructions but between different grips of the mechanical hand.

“The trick would be probably to put this in a whole bunch of riders' hands, then after they've ridden with it for a while, establish what's normal use and what's abnormal use – not only the number of times they use it, but the intensity,” he said.

Peterson's experience with WhipChip is limited, but he said the technology is sound.

“I think the technology is legitimate, but just like anything else in racing, the market is too small for anyone to really develop it,” he said. “The reason I'm sure it came out of Turkey is the Turkish jockey school.”

Peterson cautioned it would be irresponsible to establish rules based around the product without considerable testing to examine normal use patterns, but that doesn't necessarily mean its implementation is years away.

A Whipchip-equipped crop, alongside a laptop and smartphone showing the software used to read it

“I think you could do it over one race meet. If you think about the whip, you're always thinking about number of events,” he said. “We have multiple whip strikes per horse per race. If you take a Woodbine meet, that's like 12,000 starts [132 cards of eight to ten races a card with an average field size of eight]. Then you've got 50,000 hits.”

The rub for many jockeys may be that WhipChip is currently offered in one of three types of whip – it's not a little clip-on attachment that can be transferred onto existing equipment. Retired Hall of Fame jockey and North American Racing Academy (NARA) founder Chris McCarron agrees that could be a sticking point, although he suspects the benefit to the animal may be worth the inconvenience for the rider.

“It seems like it's a little bit overkill. That being said, anything that can be done to minimize the amount of harm that is caused to a horse through the use of a riding crop, I'd be in favor of,” said McCarron. “They've got dozens of brands and styles of golf clubs on the market because not one size fits all. I believe it's the same way with the riding crop. I like my riding crop to flex a certain way and I felt the most comfortable and the most effective with it a certain way.

“If I was riding in a jurisdiction where they were going to implement this, I'd try like heck to get in on the ground floor so I could be involved in the design of it.”

Chris McCarron on Alysheba moments after capturing the Kentucky Derby

McCarron warned that the force of the hit, number of hits and the type of whip are not the only factors influencing a horse's experience. He teaches riders at NARA to use the whip only when the horse is in the collected point of the gallop stride, with his haunches and hind legs tucked up underneath him. Reaching back at that point will place the whip over the muscled hip, rather than the fleshy flank just behind the girth.

“When a horse is fully extended and the head is as low as it will go and the hindquarters are as far back as they'll go, that whole flank area is exposed,” he pointed out. “A lot of riders hit their horses there and they really shouldn't because number one, it's a little bit more painful to the horse and number two, a lot of horses sulk when you hit them there. It's not as effective as when you hit them up toward their hip.”

The technology would be able to provide useful information in the ongoing debate about California's whip rules, which have changed the number of acceptable consecutive hits over the past few years. It might also hit the line between eliminating the whip, which is suggested from time to time by animal welfare advocates, and allowing jockeys to keep a piece of equipment they say is vital to their safety.

“What I tell people is, this is one of the areas where animal welfare is an existential risk to the continuation of racing,” said Peterson. “This is one of those areas where we can tell people we care and we're paying attention and trying to get better. That's not a side issue, that's a core issue for us as an industry – recognizing and communicating the fact that we care and we're looking at every possible avenue to protect the horse as well as the rider.”

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