Whip Use: Can Regulations Solve Public Perception Problems?

by | 07.18.2016 | 6:53pm

Whip regulation has drawn an increasing amount of attention from regulators in recent years, as debate about the use of riding crops in Australia and Europe spills across oceans. Most recently, California officials stirred debate when they suggested a new rule for public comment to widen parameters for whip use in late stretch. If approved, the rule would increase the number of acceptable consecutive strikes from three to four in the last sixteenth of a mile of a race. Previously, only three consecutive strikes were allowed before a jockey was required to wait for a response.  

The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation held its seventh annual Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in early July and included a forum to discuss whip use and regulation. Former jockeys Chris McCarron and Ramon Dominguez joined Gunnar Lindberg, senior racing official with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, to answer questions from Sue Finley, senior vice president/co-publisher of the Thoroughbred Daily News.

Many of Finley's questions were similar to questions from racing fans on the whip issue — whether whips are needed, how jockeys view their use and regulation, and how to remedy the apparent split between public criticism of the equipment and industry support of it. The responses of Dominguez and McCarron seemed to embody the spirit of the debate at large.

McCarron candidly admitted that at one point in his career, he used the whip liberally — probably too liberally.

“For the benefit of full disclosure, I need to share with you that I was a rider who used the stick a lot,” said McCarron. “Early in my career, I thought my job was to use the stick to force the horse to run. As I got older and smarter, I think, I realized that horses are giving you their all for the most part. My style and my attitude towards the use of the crop evolved.”

Although McCarron did not go so far as to say the whip needed to be outlawed in racing, he did have concerns about whether it's being used humanely and how to explain that use to the public. Many of his concerns were based on an Australian news feature. The video from ABCTV Catalyst suggested many claims about the whip, including the notion that whip strikes are less painful to horses than human skin, are incorrect.

Chris McCarron and Alysheba

Chris McCarron and Alysheba

McCarron also had questions about how often repeated strikes actually do encourage better performances.

“If you watch American Pharoah's races, Victor [Espinoza] didn't hit him in the Arkansas Derby. He hit him 32 times from the 5/16 pole to the wire in the Kentucky Derby,” said McCarron. “He hit him a couple times in the Preakness, a couple times in the Belmont. He beat him up in the Travers. I firmly believe he only won by a length because he was struck so many times. I think that horse got to the point where he was ready to say ‘The heck with you,' but he was such a classy competitor that he won in spite of it.”

Dominguez said he also lightened his whip use with experience but believes that having the whip available for use is necessary for rider and horse safety. If a young horse gets distracted or spooky during a race, jockeys can use the crop to wake them up or help straighten them out before they create an accident. He's not convinced that anything short of a whip ban is going to satisfy the public.

“Without question, the racing industry has been moving in the right direction when it comes to the riding crop, however, why is there so much negative attention on this topic?” said Dominguez. “If you go back over the last eight years and ask almost anybody, the answer almost always has been perception, often followed by, ‘Perception is reality.' The greatest leaders in the world know that reality is reality. We need to do everything possible to help people understand the facts. Even if we had a set of rules in place that would please most people, we are talking about horses who have different demeanors, different responses. One size will not fit all.”

Leading jockey Ramon Dominguez hung up his tack after a head injury in 2013.

Leading jockey Ramon Dominguez hung up his tack after a head injury in 2013.

Dominguez believes the best solution lies in educating the public — informing them why the whip is needed and what regulations exist to protect horses from abuse of the whip. Besides, he pointed out, limiting whip use might satisfy the public, but it may be inflammatory to bettors, who may view fewer strikes as an ineffective ride. It's true, Dominguez and McCarron agreed, there are some horses that simply don't respond to encouragement other than whip use (Alysheba and Gio Ponti being two of the most notable).

“In the last 10 years I rode, I won most races without using the riding crop at all,” said Dominguez. “[But] it's not as simple as saying, ‘Don't use the riding crop.' There are cases when you absolutely need it.”

Owners and trainers also put pressure on jockeys to make liberal use of the whip in an important race. McCarron recalled one instance in which he got a $1,500 fine for whip use, which he feels was deserved. The owner offered to pay the fine for him.

McCarron said another reason many jockeys may resist limitations on whip use is a strength issue.

“When I was riding against Laffit Pincay Jr., I became very envious of him because [the racecaller] would always very emphatically announce, ‘Another polished hand ride by Laffit Pincay!' I tried to emulate that as much as I could, but it was difficult,” McCarron recalled. “It was difficult because it's much more strenuous to hand ride a horse than it is to use the stick. A lot of times jocks will use the stick to give their arms a breather.”

Gunnar Lindberg, with Ontario's gaming commission, said in his experience, pointing out to a racegoer that there is a limit on whip strikes only seems to drive them to look more closely for the hits. He has witnessed confusion from the public about waving a whip versus actually hitting the horse with it. Lindberg also noted that when new whip rules went into effect in Ontario in 2009, there was a rush of violations at first, but jockeys ultimately changed their riding styles and managed to comply.

One area, besides rulemaking McCarron suggested needs more consistent action from officials: jockeys using the whip on losing horses that are clearly way out of contention for purse money.

“If I was a steward, I would definitely call riders in and say, ‘We're trying to do what's best for the horse. That's not what's best for the horse,” said McCarron.  

  • Andrew A.

    The Industry should have a campaign (should have done it years ago) advertising the new softer whips. The people that don’t like 4 whips really don’t like any whips so you’re never gonna satisfy them. I’m for the letting the PROFESSIONAL Jockeys do what they feel they need to do for their best finish. Either get rid of them for perception only or stop the madness. There are much more important things to concentrate on.

    Remember the DRF Survey about a year ago? They had 10 issues and we were asked to rank them from 1 to 10. The people who actually Gamble rated the lasix issue 9th out of 10. I think this issue would rank really low as well.

    There is no Horse Racing Utopia.

    • Lehane

      “Softer whips” just who are you trying to kid?

  • Craig Brogden

    Good discussion. Its hard to change a culture where a certain tool has been part of the industry for so long.
    For those who state the whip is needed to control a young horse there are as many examples of young horses causing issues in races from their response to the whip.
    My recollection of Calvin Borell whipping Rachel Alexandra down the stretch in the Woodward was distressing to me as an industry participant. I can’t imagine what new fans think.
    It’s time to get rid of them completely.

  • Mike Hummel

    ‘We’re trying to do what’s best for the horse. That’s not what’s best for the horse,” said McCarron.
    The only possible argument for hitting a horse for its own good is to avoid an accident. Whipping a horse to get it to run faster is not in the best interest of the horse, regardless of its running position, the owner be damned.

    Second, the perception is that whipping the horse is animal abuse. Reality is that handle continues to drop. We can argue all day whether the two are correlated, but no one will argue that more whipping equates to more handle.

    Finally, suggesting that whipping is a non-issue because there are bigger issues to tackle is short-sighted. We all know it’s an issue, even if it isn’t the biggest. Perhaps by eliminating small problems the industry can be more focused on how how to deal with major ones, like takeout.

  • David Worley

    I’d be in favor of eliminating all use of riding crops in American TB racing. That solves a multitude of problems. That said, I think it would have little affect on handle but may improve the retention of new fans. Jockey whipping horses down the stretch strikes new fans of racing as overly brutal and out of touch with the times.

    • Flintstone

      I believe the biggest problem with whipping from a new or casual fan’s perspective is when a horse breaks down; the fan will think “That jockey just whipped the horse to death”.

      • Lehane

        Whipping can be a contributing factor when a horse breaks down. Pushing them beyond their limits when the horse is exhausted!

    • ziggypop

      Agree. Many members of my family watched the TC and onward with AP. They were horrified to see that horse whipped “mercilessly”(their words not mine) by Victor in several of AP’s races. They have not watched another race and don’t care to see another horse race again. PS We once raised horses and they were still mortified.

  • gus stewart

    Your correct about takeout, but whats really made it almost impossible to win has been the loose medication enhancing drugs that are used on and off with certain trainers,,, oh and i mean top trainers over the last 15 yo 20 years… the whip is also outdated in today’s society’s veiws. It can be used in morning s to train, but not in afternoons on display to new and old race fans. So lets write on this forum go to chrb meeting with the stewards that cannot be removed,, the heads of racing that cannot do anything in fear of losing the few remianing owners in the sport that spend the majority of money in the biz..so i will drop off the pack of ballons again to get filled up with the hot air.. priceless

  • Nayrod

    A subject to my heart. Time and time again, these riders over use the whip and hit in an inappropriate areas. Sales breeze shows make me cringe. Finally, talk regarding this matter and over use of it. I understand the use of a whip, being in this business over 30 years. I don’t understand the abuse these guys are allowed. I would be pissed, if I saw my horse be whipped 10-15 times. This sport has way to many uneducated non horse people, around these animals. Riding these horse’s doesn’t make you a horseman. Much more talk is needed on this subject and stricter laws applied for whips being over used.

  • powaymojo

    I ran a horse, at Del Mar, in the 70’s. Someone counted and Rudy Campas hit my horse 39 times from the 3/16 pole. We won but, boy were there some nasty welts on his rump. The favorite dumped Bill Hartack on his head. No, Hartack was not injured, he landed on his head. ;-)

    • Always Curious

      They used the whip on each other long ago. It’s a whole new world.

  • Always Curious

    My question: are there scientific studies to determine the level of pain experienced by a horse when whipped by a popper whip? The psychological impact? We know horses have different minds and some just shut down with a single strike. How sensitive is the horse’s skin? How does it’s sensitivity compare to other pain they experience? Horse flies, a bite from another horse as young ones do at play. These probably are poor examples and I am sure there are better comparisons.

    Personally I believe the whipping looks bad to the public but the jockey needs it for safety. I hate to see that poor horse at back, completely out contention being whipped repeatedly. That is not horsemanship. IMO it is because the horse is not fit, or grossly overmatched leading to breaking the horse’s heart. These horses careers slide downhill and their future is not bright.

    • Lehane

      The Catalyst program mentioned in the article found (quite by accident) that the nerve endings under the skin of the horse were more sensitive than that of the human being.

      • Always Curious


  • Louise Fowler

    “[But] it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Don’t use the riding crop.’ There are cases when you absolutely need it.” Same could be said about drug usage, such as lasix. Question should be: good of the horse. Because if the sport wants to attract the next generation, which has been raised with animal rights issues being a common topic in the news, with elephants being banned from circuses and chimps from testing labs, then the rights of the horse to race in the spirit of making an honest living as an athlete and not a beaten slave will have to be noted.

    “It was difficult because it’s much more strenuous to hand ride a horse than it is to use the stick. A lot of times jocks will use the stick to give their arms a breather.” Oh my. What a weak defense of whipping.

  • Jack Frazier

    To whip or not to whip, that is the question. From a participants point of view, I can see the validity of having whip rules but in all things political, I believe this is just a way racing’s administrators are deflecting the rampant drug problems and diverting attention to something that will not be changed, at least not in the present time. Most patrons, I would gather, want the riders to get as much run as they can out of their mounts and could care less about how much they use the whip. I cannot recall anyone at the track saying, “boy, did that jock hit that horse way too much” but I have heard people say, “why didn’t he hit the horse more?” As I said, this is a diversion to move people away from the discussion on the rampant drug abuse and away from certain trainers in California whose horses seem rebreak at the quarter pole. Many issues are inserted into the dialogue about horse racing to move folks attention away from the most egregious practices.

  • Cory Martinez

    The current rules in place are more than sufficient. I agree with Andrew A, launch an awareness campaign for the public.

    Abandoning the whip [entirely] is stupid and dangerous.

    • Lehane

      And some states don’t have any whip rules e.g. American Pharaoh beaten 32 times with the whip by Victor Espinoza in the Kentucky Derby.

      • Cory Martinez

        All the more reason for a national governing body. How can the racing industry have an effective PR program when each state has a different set of rules? How can we expect the general public to wrap their heads around something so arbitrary.

        If this was like the NFL or MLB then there would be uniform rules for vets, jockeys, farriers, stabling, etc. Then you could teach and enforce accordingly.

        • Lehane

          Agree with you.

  • ziggypop

    I disagree that the people who perceive whipping as “abuse” are uninformed. It is 2016 not 1950. Whipping is just one of many disturbing elements that is causing the industry to contract. That no one DOES anything about those disturbing elements IS running people off, both in and outside of the industry.

    • Lehane

      Absolutely correct.

    • mary

      I agree with Ziggypop. I took first timers to Preakness this year and the first thing my friend asked was, “why do they have to hit them”?

  • G. Rarick

    There is a balance to be struck here, pardon the pun. First off, if a jockey hit a horse 32 times in Europe he’d probably lose his license for life, and deservedly so. The American obsession with race times doesn’t help. I’ve seen horses in America clearly pulling away to a sure win by many lengths, and the jockey is continuing to turn him into hamburger to try to beat the clock, after having already beaten the rest of the field. A limit to the number of strikes allowed, a rule saying the horse must be given time to respond to a strike, and a rule limiting the jockey’s whip height to below the shoulder, coupled with the new cushion whps, should do the job.

    • Lehane

      In Australia, a jockey is not allowed to raise his whip arm above his/her shoulder height. No more than than 5 hits prior to the last 100 metres and from there to the wire at the jockeys’ discretion and therein lies a serious issue in that horse can be struck 13 times consecutively without giving it a chance to respond and some jockeys think nothing of doing this when the horse is exhausted.

  • Lehane

    Beating an animal with a whip is blatant animal abuse.

    • Andrew A.

      You might have some credibility if they were still using the old whips. Old whips used pain to motivate. Newer whips are completely different.

      This from an older BloodHorse article when the new whips first came out:

      “This is a great step for racing,” said jockey Garrett Gomez. “All the jocks discussed it and wanted to make this move. One of our biggest problems was getting enough riding crops for everybody. With Del Mar’s help, we were able to get a big enough supply, including for riders who couldn’t necessarily afford them. With the new riding crop, horses seem to react to the sound of the popper rather than from a physical reaction to the whip. It’s good for racing and we wanted to be at the forefront.”

      “I’m really happy we have made this change,” said jockey Mike Smith. “I’ve used one for quite a while. They are very equine friendly. With the old crop, if you knew how to use it, it was fine. Sometimes though in the heat of battle you might make a mistake. With these new riding crops, it really eliminates that possibility. They make noise, but they are all cushion and don’t cause any harm to the horse.”

      • Lehane

        Totally disagree with you, Andrew A. Have you looked at the Catalyst video? If not, I urge you to take time out to watch it and then you’ll be informed of the latest scientific evidence in the world that the whips used today cause pain and a degree of tissue damage to the horse.

        Of course the jockeys would say what they said when the new whip was introduced.

        McCarron has great experience and his statements are also based on his opinion of the Catalyst study. The seam of the padded whip is very hard to the touch and sometimes it contacts the horse causing great pain and can break the skin causing bleeding as in the case of Stellar Wind when Victor Espinoza flogged her to win that race a few weeks before he mercilessly flogged American Pharaoh in the Kentucky Derby.

        Also, the unpadded part of the whip often contacts the horse. More often than not jockeys hit the horse in the sensitive flank area which is prohibited under the international whip rules.

  • David Stevenson

    it is interesting to watch perception take charge of events. Roughly every 20 years we have to revisit issues for the “newbees”. The design of the whip has changed dramatically over a 50 year period and has been modified to not “hurt” the horse as much as enhance the jockeys’ ability to encourage performance. It does! Horses have low pain thresholds. colts and fillies react very differently, psychologically to the use of the whip. The record books and pedigree would be drastically different without the whip as a tool. To those who have not been around very long, the whip and its application has appeared in documentaries and rule books for more than a half century in this country and a century in Europe, featuring super stars such as Eddie Arcaro, Steve Brooks and more. Common sense whip application is essential!
    Whips have never killed a horse….drugs have! Let’s concentrate on the tougher problem.

  • Andrew A.

    We should just stop racing horses. Maybe they don’t want to run anyway. That’s the safest thing for Jockeys and Horses.

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