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.  

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