Thirty four days into his new job as Chief Executive of the BHA, Paul Bittar made his mark today as the BHA board approved an amendment to the whip rules, the third and most significant change to these rules since their introduction on October 10th 2011.
The BHA review which resulted in the ‘new’ whip rules, took almost a year and, one would imagine, significant resources. When the review was published Paul Roy, Chairman of the British Horseracing Authority, said:
“This has been an incredibly wide-ranging piece of work, resulting in a comprehensive Review that the Authority is very proud of. The Board approved every one of the recommendations and the message is loud and clear – we will continue to lead the way in responsible regulation and will make difficult decisions in the best interests of the sport and its participants.
Today’s decision by the BHA effectively neutered the rigid objectives of the original review and, by implication discredited its authors. I wonder what Jamie Stier, Director of Raceday Operations and Regulation, and Professor Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare – key figures in championing the original review – had to say for themselves at today’s meeting.
When the review was published, Tim Morris said: “Use of the whip is, understandably, a sensitive issue. Safeguarding the welfare of racehorses is a priority for the Authority and we are committed to ensuring and enhancing horse welfare, taking an approach backed strongly by current animal welfare science. The thoroughness of this Review, and the conclusions it reaches, are yet further demonstrations of this commitment.”
The key animal welfare groups were consulted during the review but prior to the latest changes, no contact was made with the RSPCA other than to inform them the review was taking place. This looks to me like a deliberate snub by Paul Bittar with the intention of showing the RSPCA who is boss, a stance I believe he might regret.
Just to clarify my position – I am not a partisan defender of the RSPCA or of the October 10th whip rules.
My view on the whip rules was that they could never be seen to be fair unless some form of ‘force index’ was also taken into account. For example, 8 full-blooded whacks might be considered within the limits while 16 rhythmic ‘flicks’ might earn a lengthy suspension.
Perhaps some form of ‘force index’ consideration is what the BHA now seeks from stewards:
“While well intentioned, and in accordance with initial requests from the jockeys for clarity and consistency via a fixed number, in practice the new rules have repeatedly thrown up examples of no consideration being given to the manner in which the whip is used as well as riders being awarded disproportionate penalties for the offence committed.” (Extract from today’s BHA statement).
A number of people in racing believe the RSPCA has had too much influence on the whip rules. David Muir, the RSPCA’s racing consultant has never left me in any doubt that the welfare of the horse is his sole concern. He comes across as having no personal axe to grind nor any appetite for grandstanding. Indeed, I understand that a number of influential people within the RSPCA believe the organisation should not be associated with racing, a stance Mr Muir has vigorously opposed.
Mr Muir has been working on trying to make hurdles safer and, also, on further changes to whip design which could, in the long term, include a microchip which measures force as well as frequency. He argued for years that cooling off facilities for horses should be made available at the end of the Grand National. The introduction of the new whip rules last October were a major boost for Mr Muir; apart from the personal satisfaction of seeing horse welfare improved, it made his on-going battle to keep the RSPCA ‘on racing’s side’ much easier. Mr Muir sent me a fiery response to today’s changes which I now understand was written by ‘the RSPCA press office’ and not Mr Muir himself. The heated language shows how difficult that internal political battle to keep the RSPCA committed to racing will now be.
Tonight David Muir told me: “I will monitor the results of the changes and if they impact negatively on the welfare of the racehorse then I will seek that the BHA are held accountable for their actions, but likewise if they work well, I will hold my hand up and admit my error.”
Could racing survive without the RSPCA? Probably. Could it prosper without them? Perhaps not. By abandoning racing the RSPCA might, by implication, be seen to be condemning it. Their role is the prevention of cruelty to animals. When Animal Rights organisations, like Animal Aid, accuse racing of abusing and killing horses, who will the BHA ask to speak in its favour?
Without the legitimate advocacy of the RSPCA, groups like Animal Aid could attend every race meeting and demand that the police investigate their allegations of cruelty.
Without a balanced viewpoint from the RSPCA on radio phone-ins and media interviews, what sort of impact would AA and the like have on racing’s image?
Would race sponsors endorse a sport which the RSPCA had deserted? Would the BBC? Would racegoers?
Racing needs the RSPCA. I hope the BHA’s bold move today in shunning the RSPCA does not make David Muir’s defence of the racing industry to his employers untenable.
RSPCA Statement on BHA rules
“It’s absolutely staggering that the BHA has taken such a clear backward step, less than six months after the new whip rules were introduced. Not only has the BHA failed to consult the RSPCA or other welfare groups about its plans but the decision flies in the face of scientific research which shows that excessive use of the whip actually increases the likelihood of falls.
“This is a black day for the racing industry but the real losers today are horses – jockeys have effectively been given a licence to beat them with impunity. We are extremely disappointed that once again the BHA has seen it necessary to change the rules in favour of the jockeys, despite having already allowed two previous concessions.
“Since the new rules limiting the use of the whip were introduced there appears to be a culture of change among jockeys, which is a positive move forward. This latest move sees the preventative, punitive, element of the new whip rules reduced even further which gives us real cause for concern.”
NB I originally attributed this statement to David Muir, the RSPCA’s consultant, who emailed it to me. David tells me he was not the author and that it was written by the RSPCA’s press office. Joe McNally
Professional Jockeys Association welcomes revisions to whip rules and penalties
Following the announcement of changes to the Rules of Racing relating to the use of the whip by the British Horseracing Authority, Paul Struthers, Chief Executive of the Professional Jockeys Association, said:
“The PJA is pleased by today’s decision by the British Horseracing Authority to make important amendments to both the Rules and the penalties relating to the use of the whip within racing.
“The adjustment to the penalty regime is welcome, as the previous penalty structure was not appropriate. However, of greater importance is the general change of approach to how the Rules are fundamentally framed and applied, which was the overriding issue, not just for jockeys but for racing generally.
“This change recognises that a ‘grey’ issue cannot be proportionately and fairly regulated by a ‘black and white’ Rule, and that Jockeys are skilled horsemen who care passionately about horses and are being denied the ability to use their full skill and judgement throughout the course of the race.
“If this is implemented as the PJA believes is the intention, Jockeys will no longer be punished for genuine, wholly unintended mistakes nor for otherwise perfectly acceptable rides. I will continue the dialogue with the BHA as they finalise the guidelines for how this approach will be implemented.
“Around 90% of the offences under the Rules that came into force in October 2011 would not have come close to constituting an offence under the old Rules. Jockeys have collectively made Herculean efforts to change their riding styles overnight and deserve enormous credit not just for that but for their patience whilst discussions to find a sensible solution to the major issues were taking place.
“There might still need to be further minor adjustments and the PJA will continue to work closely with the BHA as part of the on-going monitoring. However, everyone hopes that once the revised interpretation of the Rules comes into force, racing can return to talking about the positives, rather than focusing on and reinforcing an inaccurate and unwarranted impression of both the sport and its Jockeys.
“This has been an on-going process over the last two months and I would therefore like to extend credit to my predecessor Kevin Darley for his efforts. Just because the PJA did not publicly and explicitly speak about certain concerns does not mean that they were not raised as fundamental issues for its members.”
|British Horseracing Authority announce forthcoming amendments to Whip Rules|
|At their Board meeting today the Directors of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) approved a proposal for a fundamental change to the rules governing use of the whip, together with revisions to the existing penalty structure.
The Board agreed to progress a proposal in which the fixed number of times use of the whip is permitted is replaced by an emphasis on reviewing the manner in which the whip is used, as well as taking account of frequency. The new rule will be ready for implementation in early March.
Paul Bittar, Chief Executive of the BHA said:
“Over four months have passed since the introduction of the first set of rules following the Whip Review. Despite a number of changes to both the rule and the accompanying penalty structure it is clear that while many objectives of the Review are being met, and in particular those pertaining to horse welfare, a rule which polices the use of the whip based solely on a fixed number of strikes is fundamentally flawed.
“While well intentioned, and in accordance with initial requests from the jockeys for clarity and consistency via a fixed number, in practice the new rules have repeatedly thrown up examples of no consideration being given to the manner in which the whip is used as well as riders being awarded disproportionate penalties for the offence committed.
“The challenge is to have in place a rule and penalty structure which meets the objectives for fairness and proportionality outlined in the Whip Review while retaining the positives which have been a product of the changes to date. These include the virtual removal of all serious breaches and an overall reduction in the number of offences.
“We are confident there is not a welfare problem associated with the use of the cushioned whip in British Racing.
“The objective of this proposal is to keep jockeys riding to a similar standard as they are now with regard to their significantly reduced use of the whip, but with added discretion and common sense applied by stewards when considering whether a rider is in breach of the rules.”
As a consequence of the Board decision, rather than it being an automatic breach when a rider uses the whip eight times on the Flat and nine times over jumps, the figures become the trigger point for the stewards to review the ride in question. Stewards will then consider how the rider has used the whip in the course of exceeding the number before deciding whether a breach has occurred and a penalty is warranted.
The Board also sanctioned the introduction of a revised penalty structure, the aim of which is to increase the proportionality of the penalties, in particular for minor offences. Within the context of the current rule, the Board approved the proposal for treating cases of frequency of both one and two over as Lower Level breaches, whereby one over will still warrant a two day ban and two over will incur four day ban, rather than five days as at present.
In addition, repeat offences at both the Lower and Upper Level will not result in the penalty multiplying. Instead, each offence will be treated on its merits. However, a fifth ‘Lower Level’ offence or a fourth Upper Level offence within six months will result in a referral to the Disciplinary Panel. This ensures that there is a threshold at which repeat offenders are held accountable.
The changes to the penalty structure will take effect from Thursday 23rd February and will be retrospectively applied to suspensions still to be served.
Paul Bittar continued:
“Prior to the implementation of the new whip rules, stewards policed cases of mis-use of the whip based on similar principles to that outlined in the proposal. The difference with this proposal is the markedly lower and clarified threshold levels for when a ride will be reviewed.
“It is recognised that the most demanding challenge in relation to framing the rules on this subject is finding the balance between a proportionate penalty and one that also acts as an effective deterrent. In particular, the Board recognises that this question may come under scrutiny in major races and reserve the right to make further revisions in the future.”
“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
“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.
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”.
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.”
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 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.
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.