On one side of the debate, there is the opinion that the use of the whip in horse racing is harmless and part and parcel of the sport’s tradition.
On the other, there are those who believe it is cruel, painful to the horses and thus completely unnecessary.
Typically, those on the inside of the sport are largely in favour, but there was an incredible admission from the trainer Charlie Fellowes this week who admitted his winner at Royal Ascot, Thanks Be, should have been disqualified due to over-zealous use of the whip from her jockey, Hayley Turner.
Writing in the Racing Post, Fellowes suggested that his win in the Sandringham Handicap was tainted, and that the punishment for over-use was not serious enough to deter jockeys from seeking an extra 5% from their horses.
“The only thing that would make a difference is the knowledge that going just one strike above the seven-hit limit would lead to disqualification,” he wrote.
And judging by Turner’s reaction, he is absolutely right. She was fined £1,600 and received a nine-day suspension for her whip use, and yet insinuated she would do it all again if it meant winning another showpiece race and creating history as just the second female jockey – and the first in 32 years – to ride a winner at Royal Ascot.
Turner went four strikes over the seven-whip limit, telling ITV Racing that she ‘had no idea I had gone over the whip limit’, and attributing her actions to ‘Ascot fever’ setting in.
Speaking of potential deterrents, she said:
“If there was the prospect of a two or three-month ban I wouldn’t have done it, because it’s the middle of the season and I have a mortgage to pay and it wouldn’t have been worth it for a Royal Ascot handicap.”
It is slightly troubling that leading jockeys are so willing to flaunt the established rules, and perhaps this will spark the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) into action in implementing harsher regulations and stricter penalties.
What are the Rules on Whip Use?
The BHA allow the use of a foam padded, air cushioned whip both in flat and jumps racing, however there are controls over its use – seven times per race on the flat and eights over jumps.
The organisation consulted with a number of animal welfare groups and scientists in making their decision, and the evidence suggests that with this specific whip and its controlled use, the welfare of horses is not compromised.
The accepted whip is only supplied by one firm too, which ensures uniformity and that they all conform to the required standard.
The use of the whip is allowed to ‘encourage’ – if ever a word required inverted commas – a horse. It’s not designed fundamentally to make a horse kick on and run faster, rather to focus them on the task in hand. It is this ‘acceptable use’ clause, i.e. the distinction between ‘coercion’ and ‘concentration’, that is a grey area that perhaps still needs to be made more clear.
It can only be used on parts of the horse’s body where no pain is caused, e.g. the hind-quarters.
When & Why Did the Whip Rules Get Brought In?
The use of the whip in racing has been a hot potato for decades, but there was never any significant scientific research for critics to hang their argument on.
Until 2012, that is.
That’s when the Australian arm of the RSPCA conducted their own study into racing Down Under, with the conclusion of Professor Paul McGreevy’s research suggesting that stricter rules regarding whip use were essential.
The research found that whipping a horse had minimal impact on where they finished in a race, and that in 83% of ‘whippings’ the horse was left with a visual indentation on their body, amongst other horrific findings.
And so Australian racing was the forebearer of harsher regulations on the whip, and in 2017 the BHA finally decided to follow their lead.
There was a widespread review of whip use in racing back in 2017, and that was ultimately when many of the modern interpretations of the regulations were introduced.
This ensured the rules fell into line with many other countries in world racing, making UK whip law amongst the strictest on the planet.
The maximum use was introduced too, with stewards given extra discretion to decide if sanctions are needed when the whip is used over-forcefully and if a horse is not given enough time to respond before being struck again.
Should the Whip Rules Go Further?
According to the BHA, since the new whip rules have been implemented the frequency with which the whip is used has almost halved, which is clearly a step in the right direction.
And in a study of more than 90,000 horses that ran in 2018, only one was to have been ‘marked’ by over-zealous whip use.
As we saw with Turner at Royal Ascot, the BHA aren’t afraid to implement their punishments for breaches of the rules, even if said punishments aren’t enough to deter the jockeys from breaking the law – as Turner herself confirmed in her comments.
Prolific offenders feel the full force of the BHA’s wrath. Any jockey that is guilty of five whip breach offences in a six-month period will be referred to the organisation for a ‘more substantial’ penalty, in their words.
Another stakeholder has an alternative take. A horse can be classified a winner before their jockey is later disqualified in the steward’s room when breaching the whip rules, and that is causing bookmakers a headache or two.
Many have even linked whip disqualifications to VAR in football, where punters are left frustrated when a winning bet is subsequently settled as a loser.
But that is a nonsensical argument, because the welfare of the horses involved – these magnificent beasts that afford us so much entertained – is absolutely paramount, no matter the consternation it causes.