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Is radical change the only answer for the long-term survival of the Grand National?

In the last 6 Grand Nationals, including today’s, 6 horses have died. Graphic Approach died some time after being injured in the 2007 race and I have not counted him.

In the same period, 5 horses died in The Topham and 1 in The Foxhunters. Six horses also died over hurdles at Aintree in the same period and two horses died in NH flat races (4 died over fences on The Mildmay course).

I could have carried on and dissected the stats by runner, by comparison to other courses etc., but in the end what will matter is how racing explains itself to the public on days like these and, crucially, how it keeps the welfare organisations on its side. I’ve long thought that the RSPCA’s support for NH racing is a short-head away from being untenable. The whip controversy did substantial damage to racing’s relationship with the RSPCA and I think today’s fatalities will see the boardroom door at RSPCA HQ finally slammed on the Grand National and, sooner rather than later, on NH racing itself.

I suspect there might well be some table-banging going on at the next Heineken board meeting too (they own the John Smith’s brand). And what about Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR)? They hold a prime hand of UK racecourses – Aintree included. JCR put all their profits back into racing but they run a tightly-focused organisation acutely tuned to the commercial impact of their decisions.  They’ll have little doubt that turnstile income won’t be affected by fatalities, but the change to CH4, the sensitivity of sponsors and the vulnerability of their brand to Animal Rights groups will need to be taken into consideration.

“They either take to them or they don’t”

So what is it about the race that causes carnage? Speed, say many professionals, and the temptation to go faster has been heightened by the changes intended to make the fences easier, the elimination of drops and shaving of heights.

Speed contributes, but I think the fences are the main problem.  Steeplechasers spend 99% of their careers jumping park fences (the standard black birch barriers you find everywhere except Aintree and at Cross Country courses).  Did you see Synchronised today when AP let him have a look at the first fence before cantering back to the start? Something spooked him there – it might have been the crowds or a camera or something, but it could have been the fence itself.

Why do some horses run well time and again at Aintree (Always Waining anyone?), while many pull up,  fall or refuse? Could it be simple unfamiliarity or fear?

The Grand National fences are built on a foundation of solid wooden stakes dressed with tons of spruce.  They’re dauntingly big and wide with an unusual colour, from a horse’s viewpoint. Racehorses like routine. Most don’t relish being asked  to face something they’ve never previously encountered.  Some, a rare few, find the experience refreshing and galvanising; others see it as an ordeal.

The performance of horses over Cross Country courses – Cheltenham’s being the only UK example – back up this theory. The same horses do well on these unusual tracks time and time again.

“Lessons will be learned”

Aintree and Racing plc cannot simply keep pleading this argument after each Grand National. Two horses died last year: ‘improvements’ were made: two horses died this year.

What will result from the review of this year’s race?

My opinion is that the only long-term solution will be to strip away the spruce, burn the wooden stakes and build standard steeplechase fences of regular height. A £1m prize will ensure the quality of the race and size of the field is not diluted, The extreme distance will still make it a unique test.  The public will not be discouraged from betting on it, horses will no longer be taken by surprise and more of them will survive the race.

The nostalgia branded on my heart will mourn the passing of these fences (I had the honour of writing the words inscribed on Red Rum’s gravestone and of being present, alongside Ginger at his burial), but I’d sooner see these fences consigned to history than lose the race itself.


Maguire – whip should not be banned

Jason Maguire has spoken about the whip debate, claiming his ban after the Grand National was not the catalyst for the current whip review by the BHA.

“I did not go out to hurt Ballabriggs – we’re horsemen and we love horses,” he told the Yorkshire Post.

“I broke the rules and I got suspended for what I did. I accept that. It happened. But how would people have responded if I had not ridden the horse out – and got caught on the line? I would have been accused of not trying.

“There’s a lot of talk that the review has been pre-empted by my National ride. It has not. The National is just one race. We need to look at the whole sport. If you take sticks away, you will have horses refusing or pulling up before the final fence – particularly at a course like Towcester, with an uphill finish.

“Momentum is crucial to getting over an obstacle – and a jockey knows that the horse must come first. Would people be happy if there were races where no horse finished? You also need them for keeping a true course.”

Full article here

Pro-whip lobby – agree on your case or lose the debate

As it’s already in the public domain, I doubt Graham Cunningham (@gcunning12) will mind me publishing one of his tweets from today;

“I’m afraid I don’t get your pt. Here is mine. Horses get their arses smacked with a padded whip to win races. I support that”

Graham has been calling for someone to step up to the plate and rally those in favour of keeping the whip rules pretty much as they are. Sean Boyce feels just as strongly about the issue as Graham does (@boyciesbetting). Dave Yates feels the same (@thebedfordfox). No doubt many others would march through the Aye lobby for maintaining the status quo, but let me concentrate on these three gentlemen because each makes his living from horse racing. Graham, Sean and David are experienced professionals, with good minds and the ability to structure a solid argument.

Sean and David have put their cases already this week on their blogs (summaries and links within this article). Graham’s campaign, from what I can see, has been conducted forcefully on twitter. Sean’s belief is that things are fine as they are  and racing should not move to appease ‘public opinion’ when there is no convincing proof that ‘the public’ want to see a change in the whip rules.

The core of David’s case, put with admirable honesty, is that a battle to the line without whips is little more than a ‘fun run’ which will emasculate the spectacle and the contest. David argues about the effect on international competition of a ‘whipless finish’ and adds two or three more planks – including this ‘no evidence of public opinion’ point. But he’s also brave enough to write this:

Every person who works in racing should face themselves in the mirror once a day, and repeat, ‘My name is David, and I work in an industry of animal exploitation.’ If you aren’t called David, feel free to use your actual name.
It’s a truth many people struggle with, but horses are conceived, foaled, reared and trained as the cornerstone of a huge industry.

That seems to sum up the case for the pro-lobby: whips work, a horse might get stung a few times but will suffer no lasting harm; effective regulation is in place, the ‘public opinion’ line is a phantom one, let’s leave things alone.

But it’s too late for that line of argument in my opinion. The court is now sitting as the BHA has announced a review and the pros will not have the ‘entitlement’ to a jury of their peers, because part of the terms of reference appears to include a ‘for the good of racing’ clause. This indicates, to me, at least, that the ‘public opinion’ aspect will be taken into consideration. If so, Dave Yates’s paragraph (above) will be exhibit A for the ‘hands and heels’ advocates.

The case argued by the antis lobby seems a strong one – not just to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Much of its credence comes from the fact that a number of racing professionals – just as experienced and passionate as David, Sean and Graham – believe it’s time to go in the hands and heels direction.

My belief for some time was that H&H was the way to go if racing truly wanted to widen its appeal. But Mark Johnston’s blog article pushed me strongly in the other direction. The vet turned trainer appears to make a most convincing case for the status quo, based on the assertion that it actually improves a horse’s chances of avoiding injury (he likens it to a boxer slapped by his seconds as he faces the final round – to remind him to ‘keep his chin tucked in’ and look after himself).

That theory, in my opinion, offers the pro-whip lobby their best chance. But to succeed in this ‘court’, they must abandon all supplementary arguments and throw everything behind MJ’s belief about the equine benefits of whip use. Strong evidence must be marshalled, more experts who share MJ’s view recruited.

I spoke at some length to RSPCA consultant David Muir on Thursday (article here) and he told me he thought there was something in what Mark Johnston says. The pro-lobby ought to seize on this. Mr Muir did not seem to think the theory carried a lot of weight but at least he accepted a measure of it and he seems like a man who, provided with sufficient corroboration, might move closer to the MJ camp. (This is just my interpretation – David Muir did not say he would – the MJ article was discussed only briefly).

One thing Mr Muir was certain about was that things cannot continue as they are. He  is of the opinion that once a jockey adopts the forehand grip there is an implication that he is intent on causing pain. Nobody would expect the RSPCA to condone the gratuitous application of pain to an animal. For all that the BHA have promised to consult widely and in some detail, it seems highly likely that the foremost concern in their minds will be the views of the RSPCA.  If the co-operation of that organisation is lost to racing, the long-term fallout could prove terminal for the popularity of our sport.

Backhand position only for whip most likely outcome of BHA review says David Muir, RSPCA consultant

David Muir, the RSPCA consultant who works closely with racing on behalf of the charity, has been in the news lately.  David very kindly gave me twenty minutes of his time yesterday to record the following interview. 

“Recent media coverage seems to have given the impression that excessive whip use has suddenly become an issue because of the Grand National and Jason Maguire’s suspension.  The fact is the RSPCA and myself have been concerned about incorrect use of the whip in racing for a long time, and I have done a lot of work on the issue with a number of people.

“Although the RSPCA have always taken a pragmatic view on the whip, and indeed on racing, things are now getting out of hand.  Unless something is done about excessive use of the whip, I can see it being banned completely and that is something I don’t want to see.  The whip is needed for safety and discipline in races but how do you quantify encouragement?  That’s the area that needs addressing.

“I’ve read Mark Johnston’s piece where he says that horses need to feel the whip as they tire towards the finish, for their own safety, to keep them running straight in a balanced fashion.  To a degree Mark has a point but what you can’t do is defend the indefensible.  If the application of pain is a necessary ingredient for racing, then I see racing going into an area that’s problematic.

“The whip is a work in progress.  The one used now in racing bears no comparison whatever to the whip used five years ago. If I’d have hit myself hard on the back of the hand with a whip from five years ago, I’d break all four fingers.  I could do it with the current whip and not even leave a mark.

“The current whip has a cylindrical core covered with foam.  As it tapers down to the part which strikes the horse, it flattens out into a foam covered paddle which gives on contact with the horse and the reduction in pain, compared with the old whip, is dramatic.

“Used in the backhand style, the whip is perfectly acceptable, it’s when jockeys change to the forehand there is an implication that they want to apply as much pain as possible, and that’s where I fall out.

“We need to make sure that the correct balance is reached in whip design and in its use by jockeys. Doubling the foam-covering for example would make the whip useless for correction and discipline purposes.  But used in the backhand position, I can never see a point in the future where I, or the RSPCA, would have a problem with the whip and that is the way I think the BHA will go with this.

“The only alternative I can see to that is that the whip is to be carried for safety and correction only, as in the current hands and heels races.

“The whole point of me, and the RSPCA working side by side with racing is to try to help understand both sides of the issues as we work to improve the welfare of horses.  It’s alright standing outside and criticising racing but when you are working with racecourse management and the BHA, as we do, you see the problems they face.

“For example, I’m working closely at the moment on a hurdle design project with students at Southampton University, which is due to finish next month.  For a year we’ve been looking at hurdle design. Along with four graduates, we’ve been examining design to see if we can improve safety in hurdling and reduce fatalities.  I’m not in racing simply to criticise, I’m there to work with those involved to try to improve things”.

On the question of disqualification of a horse if its jockey is found guilty of improper use of the whip, David said:

“The Jockey should be disqualified, not the horse. Disqualifying the horse affects many other people; owners, trainers, punters, the whole system of betting.  Just imagine a jockey who wants to actually lose a race, he knows excessive use will get the horse disqualified”.

I asked David if he was involved in the decision to ask jockeys to dismount immediately after the Grand National.  He said:

“This is another issue that’s been taken completely out of context. I’ve been involved with the National now for fourteen years.  When I first went there I fought like billy-o to get loads of water and I’ve got it now, about a hundred buckets and big tanks full of water with ice-bags in them.

“When the horses come in after four and a half miles, they’re very hot.  Tim Morris (equine science and welfare director for the BHA) gave an instruction this year to jockeys to get off as soon they got in, get the saddles off and get water on the horses to cool them down. It wasn’t just the winner that got the treatment, I must have thrown water over twenty or thirty horses.  It’s a welfare issue and a good thing for racing to do”.

Asked about the image the hurried scrambling with water gave to the public, David said, “I think there was a major PA problem there.  They should have explained what was going on.  It’s a bit like when the screens go up on the course; everybody just assumes it’s a dead horse but that’s not always the case.

“Racing needs to take another step forward in explaining things.  The whip is a classic example.  Most people don’t know about the structure of a whip and how it behaves in use.  We need to be more open and help people understand things much better”.

We touched on the situation in Australia where the RSPCA were instrumental in getting NH racing  banned in all but two states.  David made the point that there’s almost no resemblance to jump racing there and in the UK, in the quality and type of horses used.  He said:

“I can never see a situation where the RSPCA would support a call for the banning of National Hunt racing in Britain. Remember, what we are about is the prevention of cruelty and the definition of cruelty is ‘the gratuitous application of pain for the enjoyment of the person who’s doing it’. Now where in racing does the term ‘cruel’ fit?  Tragic?  Yes. Cruel? I can’t see that. The RSPCA does not try to justify the deaths of racehorses, but we will work tirelessly to reduce them. It’s a high risk sport and the RSPCA’s position in it is to help make it as risk-free as possible”.

On Towcester’s decision to have only ‘hands and heels’ races from October 5th onwards David said, “It’s a brave and positive way forward and I congratulate them on their courage and tenacity in the face of these recent concerns about whip use”.

Towcester won’t wait for BHA whip review – all races ‘hands and heels’ only from October 5th

The Telegraph reports that Towcester has pre-empted the whip review currently being conducted by the BHA and banned the conventional use of whips.

From the track’s meeting on Oct 5 and at all fixtures afterwards, every race staged at the course will be run under rules currently in place for the successful ‘hands and heels’ series of races.

This series, run in conjunction with the British and Northern racing schools, is staged at a number of tracks both Flat and jumping, and is ostensibly to teach inexperienced jockeys and amateur riders how to get the best out of a horse without recourse to the whip.

One of the rules of that series is that jockeys must carry a whip. They can pull it through from one hand to the other as often as they like and hit a horse down the shoulder with it in a backhand position. However, they cannot smack a horse down the neck in the forehand position, behind the saddle or encourage it by waving the whip parallel to its head. Failure to obey the rules in this series results in automatic disqualification. After Oct 5th, any winner at Towcester whose jockey is found by the stewards to be in breach of these rules will be disqualified.

On hearing the news, the BHA’s head of communications, Paul Struthers said, “We are already conducting a review into our rules and whip use in racing. We have only just received Towcester’s proposal and will need to consider it before discussing it with them.”

Sam Waley-Cohen’s Aintree ban ‘denied common sense’ says his father

In an Oxford Mail interview concentrating mostly on the point-to-point interests of the Waley-Cohens, Robert Waley-Cohen commented on son Sam’s Aintree ‘offence’  Having fallen from Turko in the Fox Hunters’ Chase, Sam was among four jockeys who were handed suspensions for remounting and returning to the unsaddling area without their horses being examined by a racecourse vet.

Robert said, “I thought it defied commonsense,” he says. “At Aintree the distances are huge and I am glad to say in point-to-points riders are allowed to self-certify and remount their horses and ride back to the paddock.”

I commented on this blog and on twitter at the time the ban was announced that it seemed trivial, and, more importantly, inconsistent.

Had the incident involved the same four jockeys and horses but had taken place at a point-to-point, there would have been no offence and no punishment.  The BHA regulates both codes and it is silly inconsistencies like this which help prevent racing from presenting itself to potential customers as a fair and sensibly regulated sport.

If you can’t get the small things right, what chance have you with the Grand Nationals?

At the time of the bans, I had a lengthy debate with the BHA’s head of communications, Paul Struthers, asking him the question ‘Is the welfare of horses in point-to-points less important than those running at Aintree?”

I am still awaiting an answer.

UPDATE: Paul Struthers contacted me on twitter after redaing thsi and here is his verbatim response:

I really don’t recall an extensive conversation on that topic. If we have had one I’m sorry but I just don’t remember it. You certainly asked if I’d respond to some of the post-Aintree blogs but I’ve simply not had time I’m afraid, there’s just been too much on. As for RWCs quote, I very much disagree. And we do not regulate PTP in the same way as racing at all. We very much believe that the same rule should apply but the Point to Point Authority doesn’t currently agree. As for Aintree incident, what is so hard about waiting for a couple of minutes, having caught your horse, for the vet to clear the horse as fit to be hacked back?

You can follow me on twitter here

Joe McNally

Grand National ‘cruelty complaints’ from BBC viewers more than 10 times higher than last year

The BBC press office confirmed today that, from a peak audience of 8.8 million, they received 313 complaints about the Grand National, up from just 29 complaints last year.

After the 2011 Grand National, complaints regarding animal cruelty were at their highest in 10 years, mostly directed at the coverage of the horse deaths. The breakdown:

161 about coverage of horse deaths
103 people felt the BBC should not cover GN
8 from viewers unhappy with whip usage

The BBC press office points out that the degree of  general media coverage after the Grand National might have played some part in the increase in the volume of compaints.

Here is the BBC’s response to viewer complaints about the coverage of the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s gate

We have received some complaints from viewers who are unhappy with how we covered the death of two horses during The Grand National on 9 April 2011.

In covering The Grand National, we have to strike a balance between covering the race as well as reflecting incidents that occur on the race track.

We reacted with as much care as possible given the very sad circumstances surrounding the death of the two horses.

We used the wide helicopter camera to cover any distressing scene as this provided the most distant angle available to us. We knew families with young children could be watching the race, so we tried to cover the deaths of the horses with as much sympathy as we could to ensure we minimised the distress this may cause our viewers.

Ultimately, our aim is to bring our audience the most comprehensive coverage of The Grand National; and we acknowledge that, when such sad events happen, it is hard to satisfy everyone with the manner in which they are covered

The breakdown of complaint categories from the BBC figures differs substantially from those reported by Channel 4 and the BHA where the main issue for complainers who contacted those organisations was whip use in the Grand National.  Full article here

The BBC also commented on another article I wrote prior to the Grand National regarding the effect of their coverage on the non-racing public.  Here is that article.

You can follow me on twitter by clicking here


Joe McNally


The whip debate: a review of recent articles, opinions and proposed solutions plus a one-click poll for your vote

NB if you don’t wish to read the full article, please add your vote to the poll at the foot of this page.  Thanks

David Ashforth must be wondering how he can turn, in 24 hours, from being the darling of his colleagues (twice voted journalist of the year by them and lauded after the recent announcement of his retirement), to industry pariah.

Twenty years on the frontline of racing journalism,  David set the cat o’ nine tails among the pigeons on Monday with his Racing Post article calling for changes to the whip rules. He did not advocate a ban on the whip being carried; he believes the time has come for its use as an instrument of ‘coercion’ in a finish to be outlawed.

Here’s a quote from that article: (NB, where available, links to all full articles are at the foot of this page)

“I still regularly find myself saying to the television screen “don’t hit it again”, particularly in the case of horses exhausted at the end of a gruelling jump race but also in some other situations. It is not an uplifting sight, and the distinction between coercing a horse by improper use of the whip and encouraging it by using the whip within the constraints of the rules is surely lost on everyone who is not already a committed racefan”

David cites public opinion in support of his own opinion although he accepts that there is no structured, reliable evidence other than what appears to him to be a matter of common sense:

“Public attitudes on what is  acceptable will surely continue to move in only one direction. The wider public which racing wants to attract does not enjoy watching horses being whipped. It makes the sport less attractive to them and is likely to be an alienating feature of racing for the next generation  of potential racefans. Admittedly, that is an assertion without the benefit of supporting evidence but if a survey of opinions and reactions to the sight of horses being whipped was carried out, I would be very surprised if the results did not support my assertions”

Sean Boyce’s response

ATR presenter and former head of communications at Ladbrokes, Sean Boyce, responded, at considerable length, to David’s article on his blog. Here’s an extract:

“Looks like we’ll all be asked to take a stance on this before long. Here’s where I stand. Calls for a ban on whip use in race riding are wrong. More than that they are unjustified, misguided and dangerous.

“David Ashforth argues (rightly in my view) that we’ve come a long way in terms of how the use of the stick is regulated in the sport. He goes on (wrongly in my view) to assert that ‘public attitudes on what is acceptable will surely continue to move in only one direction’.

“I hear this argument a lot now. Public opinion won’t tolerate this or that. We must change. There are some serious problems with this logic.

“First off there is little or no evidence of the public ‘outrage’ that we’re seeking to address. Secondly public opinion is often wrong. Thirdly, public opinion is never set in stone. It is fluid, mutable and we have a key part to play in shaping it. We should be actively involved in that process rather than merely passively reacting. Finally, the logic of this argument itself leads in ‘only one direction’ and that direction is not one that we should be volunteering to head in”.

David Yates responds to David Ashforth

Dave Yates, Newsboy of The Mirror, blogged a piece as lengthy and passionate as  Boycie’s in its defence of the status quo.  Here are some extracts:

“Is there any sport so insecure as racing that it wants to hand the job of rewriting its rule book to a group of people who have, as yet, expressed no interest in it?

All but the most die-hard flat-earthers within racing support the need to widen its customer-base and extend it downwards in terms of age.

But should this mean implementing such fundamental change to the sport for the sake of a nebulous sector of the population who may or may not come through the gates?”

. . . .

“There is not a major racing nation on earth that allows a whip to be used merely for steering and correction. What would be the consequences for the first country to break ranks?

“Like David (Ashforth) with public perception, I have no empirical evidence, but it’s highly unlikely that those within a state that has not banned the whip at the conclusion of races would look favourably/enviously at one that has. Despite woeful prize-money levels, British racing still manages to attract top-class runners from overseas for its best races.

“It is near certain it wouldn’t attract any more by outlawing the whip, and it may very well attract fewer. Even the most ardent opponent of the whip would surely concede the best way to approach this issue is in tandem with other major racing nations rather than to go it alone”.

. . .

“A jockey becomes animated at the end of a race not, as is popularly assumed, to make a horse run faster, but to prevent it from slowing down. If a horse slows down for vigorous hand riding but ups its game when hit with the whip, is it genuine or ungenuine?

“David clearly views such a horse as ungenuine in comparison to one that will gallop on once its jockey’s arms start to move – but many will think otherwise. I would counter that, while ungenuine horses don’t respond to the whip, it is exactly the tool – correctly used – to draw the strongest efforts from genuine horses in a finish”.

. . .

“Every person who works in racing should face themselves in the mirror once a day, and repeat, ‘My name is David, and I work in an industry of animal exploitation.’ If you aren’t called David, feel free to use your actual name. It’s a truth many people struggle with, but horses are conceived, foaled, reared and trained as the cornerstone of a huge industry.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that our industry shouldn’t practise within a framework of rules which limit abuse and safeguard welfare. But an engagement with horseracing involves an acceptance of the view it is right for man to dominate/exploit animals for his own benefit. Fundamentally, that belief relates to food and clothing. In our case, to entertainment”.

. . .

Dave ended a very strongly argued case with a sentence that caught me by surprise in its bare honesty and I wonder if he had any debate with himself about putting it on paper. Here it is, along with the penultimate sentence which gives the ending context:

“The whip, correctly used, is an essential element in what makes racing such a great sport – it involves a pain barrier, and the aesthetic of a horse responding to its use is beautiful, noble and heroic.

“Without the whip, the white heat of a horse race is reduced to the triviality of a fun run – and that’s why it must not be banned”.

I agree with Dave that, however uncomfortable anyone’s ethics make them feel about watching the finish of a horse race, an unbidden primal admiration probably rises in the hearts of most people seeing horse and man as one graceful entity, perfectly balanced in motion, whip rising and falling with flawless rhythm and precision, stirring a surge of acceleration each time it strikes the gleaming muscle of half a ton of equine athlete.

The trouble is that such a sight is rare. Much more common is that of a little bloke, pretty tired himself, kicking and flailing at his sweaty mount, bent on keeping it moving straight however near to exhaustion it is.  Ascot in June is far removed from Towcester in November.

The key point of all three quoted articles is public opinion.  In Tuesday’s Racing Post Jon Lees reported:

THE  BHA  is  conducting  an  extensive consultation  on  the  regulation  of  the whip, which will include whether to allow its  use  in  races  for  only  safety  and correction, as proposed in the Racing Post yesterday by David Ashforth.  Jamie Stier,  the  BHA’s  director  of raceday operations and regulation, said a wide-ranging review involving jockeys and trainers,  as  well  as  the  RSPCA, was under way to establish a “sensible and balanced approach” to the use of the whip in the sport.

The subject of the whip is regularly  discussed at the BHA but Stier said a detailed review would look at how its use should be controlled and whether the penalty structure for breaches is sufficiently  effective,  not  only  “for the image of the sport but also the good of the sport”.

“We are gearing now towards looking at the matter  further  from  a couple  of  angles,”  he  said. “We’ll look at it from the angle of the riders. To do that, we’ll do a statistical analysis of the riders .“It  must  be  said  at  the outset that the vast majority of riders comply with the regulations as they are laid down and do use the whip responsibly. That’s not to say there aren’t others who seem less compliant with the regulations and therefore statistics will bring those people out.

“We can look at the effectiveness of the rules and also the penalty structure to see whether the  necessary deterrent effects are involved.”

He continued: “We’ll also look  at  the  wider  issue  – which is equally, if not more important – of  how the whip is best regulated within racing for the good of it. We’ll be seeking  comments  and input from  various  sectors within the industry, some of which we have already spoken  to,  but  we  will  continue  to speak to  a  wider  group  as  we  go along, and at the end of it all we’ll draw what we believe to be the appropriate conclusions.  If  changes  are  to  be made, they will be made”.

No outright mention of public opinion by Mr Stier, just a nod in that direction with reference to “the image of the sport”

So among the three main debaters – Mr Ashforth, Mr Boyce and Mr Yates – who has his finger most accurately on the public pulse?

Well, if post-Grand National ‘complainer’ responses are considered a reasonable benchmark, Channel 4 and the BHA report that the majority of complaints were about whip use rather than the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate.

Ch4 presenter Richard Hoiles reports the percentages as 55% whip, 35% fatalities, 10% exhaustion “though not a big postbag”.

Paul Struthers, BHA head of communications reports that “almost all” the 50/60 complaints were about the whip. Paul says that this was the biggest number of complaints since Mckelvey finished lame, in second, in 2007.

I have asked the BBC and Aintree’s MD Julian Thick for a similar breakdown of complaints and will update this article if and when I receive the figures.

(UPDATE: here is the response from Aintree’s MD, Julian Thick: “Aintree takes all customer comments very seriously. However we do not think it appropriate to release information regarding such comments into the public domain”)

(UPDATE: The BBC press office reports that only 8 (2.4%) of the 329  complaints received after the Grand National concerned whip use: this paints a substantially different picture and its dranw from a much higher sample of complainers; perhaps racing should be wary of giving too much weight to the complaints received by the BHA. The BHA, will, I daresay, be privy to the Aintree postbag which remains firmly closed to this blog, although I remember from my time at Aintree as marketing manager, that some post-National complaints were part of an orchestrated campaign by interest groups.  Please bear this new evidence in mind while reading the remainder of thsi article which was written before the BBC figures became available.)

So, it seems, albeit from a small sample so far, that the public is not only concerned about the whip issue, it’s actually more important to them than the deaths of two horses in the sport’s showcase event.  How can this be?

The instincts of Sean Boyce and Dave Yates are, I would guess, shared by a large percentage of race fans – “I’ve never heard any member of the public complain about whip use”.  On the face of it, that is probably an accurate assessment.  But, as ever, the devil is almost certainly in the detail.

The non-racing public – our prospective customers, much wooed by RFC and racecourses – are most unlikely to watch TV racing other than the Grand National.  A small percentage of them will have gone racing at some point but their view of whip use would have been from a box or the stands – 75, 100, maybe 150 metres distant from the action.

What they saw on April 9th just before 4.30 was a close-up of an understandably determined Jason Maguire giving a beautiful big bay thoroughbred who had led 39 opponents over four and a half gruelling miles and 30 fences in Mediterranean temperatures, whack after whack after whack. The treatment he meted out was thrown into stunningly harsh contrast when he jumped off immediately after passing the post and showed such concern for a horse close to collapse.

How did that play with the millions watching? Hypocrisy on Jason Maguire’s part? 

What it reinforced to me was that perception is everything. On April first I wrote on this blog an open appeal to the BBC to cut down the number of slow motion replays of fallers at Aintree. ‘Dramatic as they are, you do racing no favours showing them’ Perhaps I should have appealed over the whip instead.

Out of sight is out of mind. Unless exposed to excessive use of the whip in graphic fashion, the public have no detail on which to make a subjective judgement. Jason Maguire, unwittingly, opened Pandora’s box. The jockey should not be demonised – many of his colleagues, blood up and within 400 yards of achieving  their lifelong ambition, would have done the same.

So will the BHA take David Ashforth’s line? Should the whip be banned as a means of ‘encouragement’?  They say they will consult widely.  Here is the view of one, highly experienced and vastly well qualified person they will definitely consult (the words in bold type are mine):

“The whip is often, as is recognised in the rules of racing, required to discipline horses, to prevent interference between horses in a race and, to some extent, to aid steering. But, to my mind, it has a far more important function in racing: to keep a horse balanced and, ultimately, reduce the risk of serious injury even when it is getting tired towards the end of the race.

“In breeding horses to race over centuries we have selected for, and greatly enhanced, the flight response which is inherent in all horses. That response, which is driven by chemicals in the body such as adrenalin and endorphins, can be initiated quite easily in a fit, trained, racehorse by the very excitement of being at the races but it must be maintained throughout the race.

“There are many physiological changes taking place as part of the flight response and, together, they ensure that the mechanical components of the body are fuelled to capacity and can work up to maximum output but with natural limiters in place to try to ensure that the body is not pushed to breaking point.

“However, as the horse tires, many components of that physiological response wear off. The excitement wanes, the stride shortens and the weight distribution alters with the head and neck lowering and more weight being thrown onto the vulnerable front limbs. At this point, it is in the best interests of the horse to reinforce the flight response and get the horse to the end of the race in a fully alert state. The strokes of the whip, which cause no lasting damage to an animal of that size, initiate a new ‘injection’ of adrenalin and endorphins.

“Those who have heard this argument from me before will know that I like to compare this tiring state with a boxer about to come out for the last round of a gruelling fight. The jockey’s use of the stick is akin to the seconds slapping their man’s cheek and telling him to get his wits about him, keep his chin in, and look after himself.

“I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable about horses racing without the aid of the stick”.

Should the BHA move toward radical changes in the whip rules, they risk losing their most recently appointed director,  the author of the above words, leading trainer and experienced vet, Mark Johnston.

That extract from Mr Johnston’s blog article, was a revelation to me. If his conclusions  were endorsed by, for example, the BHA’s equine science and welfare director Tim Morris, and, crucially, an equine specialist from the RSPCA, then the whole game changes. The welfare of the horse is improved by the use of the whip in a finish.

Bring on the fat lady?

No, best keep her in the wings because, as racing found with the 2011 Grand National – perception is all and perception is driven by presentation. What racing presented to the public via the lenses of the drama-driven, but politically naïve BBC, was a rubber-necker’s dream view behind the screens (or rather above the screens) of a dead Dooney’s Gate; the tarpaulin-draped corpse of Ornais (why no screens Aintree?) and, to finish, a gallant winner whipped regularly on the way to the post followed by what looked like a flurry of disorganised civilians sloshing water over exhausted horses like some crazy band of It’s a Knockout participants.

Aintree were sufficiently well prepared to instruct the jockeys beforehand to dismount immediately on passing the post. Was this information given to the BBC ? If so, why didn’t they broadcast it while the unseemly scramble was taking place?

Having issued the instruction, Aintree officials should have had plans in place to get the winning jockey back to the winner’s enclosure in a fashion befitting the ‘world’s greatest race’, rather than having him run the gauntlet while stewards aggressively shoved photographers out of the way.

I digress, you might say, but only to hammer home the point that presentation and planning are vital to the image of our sport.

Returning to the whip debate, the BHA must not, in my view, start reacting to media headlines. Successive governments have proved the folly in that strategy.  What is needed is steadfast resistance to both sides in the whip issue –pros and antis – until the facts can be established in the most credible manner possible.

Their job then is to decide if change is necessary.  Whatever the outcome, their biggest challenge – the one they’ve failed miserably to meet so far – is anticipating reaction and formulating their communications strategy accordingly.

I can find no mission statement on the BHA website.  I offer them this one: “Everything we do will be presented to the public in a manner that is easily understood, enlightening and aimed at changing all negative perception of our sport.”

Please feel free to join the debate by leaving a comment or click to vote in the poll.

Joe McNally       follow me on twitter

Sean Boyce – full article

Dave Yates – full article

Mark Johnston – –full article

The current rules pertaining to whip use

No link is available to David Ashforth’s article as it is not yet in the Racing Post online archive.

You bet. They Die. More than a week on from the National, Charlie Brooks reminds us of the dangers of ignorance

It’s a brave racing personality who raises the ghosts of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate when the national media have forgotten them. But I think Charlie Brooks is right to do so here in today’s  Telegraph.

It’s too easy for us to settle back down into daily racing life till Aintree comes along next year with the threat of dropping more Animal Aid parcels to those vehemently opposed to the National.

Other articles in this category  – 2011 post-Grand National debate – on my blog, tell the story of the continued campaigns in Australia to abolish NH racing completely (It’s now legal in only two states). Michael Lynch’s article gives an enlightening picture of the background to that campaign and it’s notable that the RSPCA down under helped get jumps racing stopped in many states.

How much longer the UK arm of that organisation can continue to ‘support’ the Grand National must be questionable. The Animal Aid devotees (their GN ‘merchandise’ includes T-shirts with the motto You bet. They Die), will have taken considerable heart from the public exposure they’ve received this time round.  If they have any nous, the RSPCA will be in their crosshairs.

Charity donations are tough to come by in these days of ‘austerity’; if an anti-RSPCA campaign orchestrated by Animal Aid starts affecting funds, racing had better look out.  Charlie Brooks touches on the whip issue too and the BHA’s position on the current rules will become untenable – it’s a matter of time and a subject for a separate article.

Joe McNally

All National jockeys pre-instructed to dismount at the end; we should have been told beforehand

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare for the British Horseracing Authority writes to the Liverpool Echo. In his letter (in full, below) he tells readers: ” However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses”.

Had viewers been told beforehand, or the BBC briefed to build it into the coverage as water was being sloshed around everywhere at the end, it would have done two things:

Helped explain to the uninitiated what was happening and why

Given the message that detailed planning had gone into the organisation of the race

A vital PR opportunity missed.

Tim Morris’s letter

ALL those who love racing and horses will have been saddened by the accidents which led to the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate during the Grand National this year.

It was distressing for all of us to watch – those involved in racing care deeply for their horses.

This care and concern is why horseracing has for many years worked closely with legitimate animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. However, racing is a sport with risk, and the Grand National is the most testing race in Great Britain. Racing is open and transparent about this risk and works hard to reduce it. 

 TV viewers saw several welfare measures in action at this year’s race. For the first time, two fences were bypassed to minimise the risk of further accidents and run-outs were introduced so that those horses that had lost their riders could run around fences rather than jump them. Viewers will also have seen the winning jockey, Jason Maguire, jump off after the race and his horse, Ballabriggs, cooled with water. However, what viewers may not have seen is that due to the unseasonably warm weather, all the jockeys had been told to dismount from their horses as soon as the race was over in order to allow handlers and vets to get water to the horses

In addition, Mr Maguire was banned for five days for exceeding the strict limits which the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s regulator in Great Britain, places on the number of time he could use his whip. We will certainly be reviewing our rules to ensure that we have the balance right between appropriate use of the whip and stopping unacceptable use.

 Not everyone supports racing, and Animal Rights activists such as Animal Aid are entitled to their views. The BHA believes that the overwhelming majority of the British public do not subscribe to this view, and want to see racing continue.  We know the public also expects racing to do everything in its power to reduce risk to horses. The BHA is listening and is determined to ensure that this happens. 

Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare, British Horseracing Authority

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