With the Belmont Stakes being run on Saturday, horse racing is again in the public eye. The use of whips has long been controversial. Now, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved new rules that limit the use of the whip, five days after the California Horse Racing Board adopted the most stringent whip-use regulations in the United States.
The new rules would limit riders to six uses of the whip after the first furlong is run, with no more than two strikes in succession without giving the horse an opportunity to respond. The rules also would allow riders to use the whip “to avoid a dangerous situation that may harm another rider or horse,” with stewards being given the discretion to determine whether the jockeys’ use of the whip in those instances was justified. Current rules do not have numerical limits on the number of times a jockey can strikea horse with a whip, but do have some rules limiting the manner in which a whip can be used.
The new rules prohibit using a crop on a horse’s head, flanks or any parts of its body other than shoulders or hindquarters. The crop could only be used when necessary to control the horse for its safety or that of the rider. While the California rules limit all six uses to under-handed strikes, the rules in Kentucky allow jockeys to use different motions, provided the rider does not lift their wrist above the helmet.
In recent years, there’s been more attention paid to what appears to be excessive use of the whip. One of the most notable instances being the 2009 Woodward stakes, won by Rachel Alexandra. Calvin Borel went to his whip at the three-sixteenth pole, hitting her three times right handed, five times left handed, and then back to his right hand during the final stretch run when Macho Again tried to run her down.
At the three-sixteenths pole, Borel went to his whip. He smacked Rachel three times right-handed, switched over to his left hand, whipped her five times, and then went back to his right for a final surge as Macho Again drew nearly even — 15 pops in the last 150 yards, and a few taps on the shoulder. Rachel Alexandra won by a head. But, the response from racing fans was instant and almost universally negative. For a sport struggling with its image, whip use reinforces the public’s impression that racing is bad for horses.
What fans didn’t realize was that Calvin Borel was using a low-impact whip tipped with a long, padded popper. It puts an entirely different complexion on his actions.
Another controversial race was the 2015 Kentucky Derby, in which jockey Victor Espinoza used his whip 32 times down the stretch while urging American Pharoah to victory. Espinoza was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Derby but a month earlier had been fined $300 by California racing officials for breaking the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks. After the race, Espinoza said it was mostly flagging and the softer whip is much less harsh to begin with. It’s used to direct the horse, prompt him forward, and the noise of the whip alone signals the horse, urges him on.
In Kentucky, jockeys also will be able to use the whip for the first eighth-mile of a race in order to establish control of their mounts during what is typically the roughest part of a race, with none of those uses counting against the six uses during the remainder of the race. Jockeys also will be able to tap the horse’s shoulder or neck as long as both hands are on the reins.
Violations of the rules will draw fines and suspensions, with the severity of the punishments progressively increasing with the amount of strikes that a rider uses over and above the maximum. Under the rules, horses would not face disqualifications for violations of the rules, but under the most severe penalties, a jockey could lose the entirety of the rider’s share of the purse.
In California rule would provide for a maximum fine of just $1,000. In both jurisdictions, after two successive strikes, riders would be required to allow horses a chance to respond before wielding the whip again. The rule language before the CHRB would restrict appropriate whip use to the horse’s shoulder and hindquarters only (not the more sensitive flank just behind the girth), and no more than twice in succession without waiting for a response, and no more than six times total. Jockeys will be penalized for using the whip on a horse that is clearly out of the race or is not responding. Whip use is not permitted in training except for safety or correction.
The CHRB had two items related to the whip to consider at its Thursday meeting: one to modify the size, shape and other specifications of whips that are permitted in races, and one to modify appropriate use of those whips. The first rule, while not specifically naming any one product, essentially allows riders to use only the 360 GT whip engineered by retired rider Ramon Dominguez. The 360 GT features a round, cylindrical end made of a dense foam material designed to absorb shock and essentially bounce back from the horse, eliminating the sting from the popper but making a loud sound which helps encourage the horse. Independent testing conducted by Chesapeake Testing in May did show a measurable impact force reduction as compared to standard whips of the same length and weight.
“As a jockey, you really have no control as to how the popper is positioned, whether it’s on the flat side or if it’s on the edge. If it is on the edge, clearly the impact can be greater than the flat side and can possibly hurt the horse,” Dominguez explained. “That was really the one key factor that brought me to start thinking about how we could minimize the edges.”
The Jockeys’ Guild opposed the adoption of that rule and later issued a statement saying the regulations were “unsafe” and that the rules “would jeopardize the integrity of the sport.” The Jockeys’ Guild emphasized its belief that riding crops are “still necessary for encouragement, communication and control.” The Guild believes that a whip can have an important role in keeping the horse and rider safe when it is used to get a horse’s attention to steer it away from danger. That’s an entirely different argument from encouraging or making a horse run faster.
What would racing look like without whips? You have only to look at Norway, which banned the whipping of horses in 1982. Jockeys are allowed to carry whips in 2-year-old races, but they are not allowed to use them in an attempt to make the horse go faster. They can only be used to make sure that green horses mind their business and keep a straight course.
What do you think about the use of whips?