LONDON, United Kingdom — In Britain, horse racing is wildly popular. Millions of fans — including Her Majesty — pack the nation’s racecourses every year to watch equine athletes and their riders compete.
But this season, the Sport of Kings is embroiled in a heated debate over the jockey’s most iconic tool: the whip.
In October, the sport’s governing body unveiled new regulations halving the number of times a jockey can strike a horse during a race, with strict penalties including suspensions and loss of prize money.
Since then, the season has been a blur of suspensions, angry protests and rule revisions. The head of the jockeys’ union has called it “the most challenging time for jockeys for many decades.”
The whip became a public issue in Britain this April following the Aintree Grand National, the sport’s premiere event. Many spectators were horrified by winning jockey Jason Maguire’s flailing of Ballabriggs, his clearly-exhausted mount, in the final stretches of a race in which two horses sustained fatal injuries. Read more >>
The subheading states, “A ‘scientific’ study, funded by RSPCA Australia, has found that using a whip in the closing stages of a horse race is futile and does not make any difference to the outcome. What is it – April Fools day?”
To put this viewpoint into perspective it is, perhaps, worth giving you some background to the form regarding the animal welfare lobby and their effects on Australian racing.
Four decades ago steeplechasing in Australia was probably third only to Britain and Ireland in size and importance, when horses like Crisp were commonplace.
Then the animal welfare lobby stepped in to have their say. The authorities caved in and made the jumps easier, which meant that the horses went much faster during the races with the unhappy consequence that more were killed and the sport effectively ate itself.
Jumping is now all but extinct Down Under and, last December, renewed calls were made for whips to be banned from use in races for two year-olds.
As far as I can gather, the theory behind the use of the whip in a race is to provide an external stimulus to make a horse go faster or, when tiring, to prevent it slowing down as quickly as it might.
When you smack a horse with a whip this sends a message to the flight or fight part of its brain and the horse either runs away from the hit – forwards – or it retaliates which, I imagine, is the rare horse that stops trying when hit. Either way, the whip is likely to increase the production of adrenalin.
That is why jockeys hit them behind the saddle and not across the head or, now, down the shoulder. When hit, the majority of horses give a bit more and the whip rules here have evolved accordingly.
That is why a jockey is expected to give a horse time to respond between hits and why after say 10 hits, an 11th can be regarded as pointless and punishable. A number of horses are not natural leaders and are also reluctant to pass the horse in front in the closing stages of a race without the flight stimulus.
Armytage goes on to cite Tony McCoy, who is well known for his aggressive riding style, as an expert on brandishing the whip noting McCoy has “persuaded well over 3,000 horses to pass the post first.”
To me it seems pretty obvious that if a racehorse is “lazy” and cannot be counted on to give his best, or has to be frightened into an adrenaline charged last gasp attempt to cross the finish line first, he either does not like racing, or is simply not good enough on the day. Horses are not machines, poor performance or slowing down, can be attributed to any number of things, including worst of all, injury. This immediately brings to mind Eight Belles, who was whipped past the winning post in the Kentucky Derby where she collapsed with two broken front legs and put down.
I say for the sake of the horses competing, let the horse who has the speed, stamina and courage win, without brutal or artificial incentives. And if you think the whipping of a tiring horse to scare him into running faster is not brutal, you need to check the dictionary and your compassion index.
I am not against jockeys carrying a whip. Some horses do need a reminder “tap” to get their minds back on the job when idling, or straighten them up when they start to hang. Whipping, however, is cruel, unfair and should be banned.
If horses could talk, how many would say, hey, if I slow down during the race, you have my permission to give me a right old thrashing?
Eton-educated Marcus Armytage won the Grand National in 1990 on Mr. Frisk to a threequarters of a length victory over Durham Edition in a time that beat Red Rum’s 1973 record by almost 14 seconds. Armytage got every ounce out of Mr Frisk on the run-in, using just hands and heels on his father’s advice.