Infotainment Factory: What you don't know about horse whips

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Saturday, 10 November 2018

What you don't know about horse whips


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If the Melbourne Cup was the only horse race you watched this year and you are sympathetic to animals, you may well have been horrified.

One horse, The Cliffsofmoher, became the sixth animal euthanised in as many years in the Cup, after breaking its shoulder. And then, there was the whipping.

The three place-getting jockeys – Kerrin McEvoy, Hugh Bowman and Michael Walker – were all penalised for excessive whip use. Six riders in all, for exceeding the limit of five strikes on the horse before the 100-metre mark.

The Cliffsofmoher's death fuelled animal rights arguments that racing should be boycotted or banned. That being unrealistic, a total ban on whipping has long been demanded by racing’s detractors.

But industry figures, from trainers to jockeys and executives, believe that the whip is entirely misunderstood. That racing does not have an animal cruelty problem, but merely a problem with the perception of animal cruelty.

The modern whip, introduced with 2009 rule changes from the Australian Racing Board, is plastic padded with high-density foam. Racing figures believe that the vast majority of casual race-watchers remain unaware of that fact. It is far from the old leather crop.

Animal rights groups, citing research, insist that the modern padded crop still hurts the animal. Racing bodies, backed by their own studies, say that it does not; that it is a tool designed to create a loud noise and encourage the horse.

Jockeys know that regardless of the whip’s construction, it gives off a sinister image.

“The riders are very aware of the image that they’re portraying,” Australian Jockeys Association chairman Des O’Keeffe told Wide World of Sports.

“The general public absolutely don’t know that it’s a foam padded whip that makes a loud noise, and that’s the encouragement to the horses. It is not designed to – nor does it, we believe – cause pain to the horse. That will be hotly debated, or course, by proponents on the other side of the debate.”

RSPCA Australia maintains that whipping horses remains both cruel and painful.

“The whipping of race horses is our most public form of violence toward animals,” a statement on the RSPCA website says.

“If horses were whipped in the same way, away from the track, it would be a prosecutable animal cruelty offence.

“Yet the Rules of Racing allow jockeys to keep hitting horses.”

The RSPCA cites research that shows horses are often struck with the unpadded section of the whip; that they are regularly struck in the abdomen rather than the hindquarters; and that whipping does not actually have any impact on the horse’s chances of winning.

Jockeys insist that is not the case and that the whip remains an essential tool of the trade. And when it’s a case of small men riding 500kg thoroughbreds at top speed, it is not just to make the horse run faster.

“They’re a safety tool, first and foremost,” O’Keeffe said, pointing to an incident during Race 1 of Cox Plate Day at Moonee Valley, in which jockey Brett Prebble used the whip to refocus his two-year-old horse – True Serendipity – as it veered dangerously off course.

“If that rider – a rider of vast international experience, Brett Prebble – didn’t have the whip to help guide the horse when it decided to head towards the outside rail, it could have been a very, very challenging situation for the horse and the jockey; and the other horses and riders involved.”

O’Keeffe said the Melbourne Cup, as a 3200m staying race watched by an extraordinary number of casual racing fans, was set up to generate whip controversy.

“If you take into account a ride like Hugh Bowman’s or a ride like Kerrin McEvoy’s, a ride in the circumstances of a 3200m staying race where they were sitting back third last and second last and they wanted their horses to try to pick up and get into the contest, which they both did … the rule that’s in place is a very, very difficult rule to adhere to when you’re out there in a field of 24, you’re sitting back in 23rd or 22nd or 21st at the 600m mark,” O’Keeffe said.

“Not only have you got to try to get your horse to participate, respond and contest, you’ve still got to do it while negotiating your way through the field, while counting how many times you may have given the horse that encouragement to hit the line, before you get to the 100m mark.

“It’s not the easiest thing for any athlete to do. Whilst it’s disappointing, it certainly isn’t surprising in the context I’ve described that a rider – even of a McEvoy’s experience, even of a Bowman’s experience – may get it slightly, or in Hughie’s case significantly, wrong.

“How the race is run often dictates how the riders ride. This year’s race unfortunately, with the first and second riders coming from way back, it just lent itself to getting the rule wrong.

“To people involved, did it look bad? To those who are working in the industry and consider themselves reasonable in their interpretation, the answer is absolutely not. But the perception to those who go once a year or just generally follow it would see the reports and say, ‘That’s terrible’.

“Whilst we’d love the riders to get it absolutely right, I understand why they didn’t.”

Finding an appropriate and effective deterrent is difficult. What jockey would not flout the rules in the heat of the moment with a Melbourne Cup within their grasp? Bowman copped an eight-meeting ban for using the whip 12 times on second-placed Marmelo before 100m, more than double the limit, while McEvoy was fined $3000 for whipping winner Cross Counter nine times.

O’Keeffe insists that in most cases, the jockeys understand their role in protecting the sport’s image by limiting whip use.

“I would say that the vast majority of the riders understand the balance between the image of the sport and the competitive nature of the sport,” he said.

“It’s a very fine balance. Yes, it has to be competitive, because people want their horses to do their best; but they also want their horses to do their best without the perception that it’s a free-for-all [using the whip].

“I think the rules are a very good guideline. They’re significant. Overall, I think it’s worked out pretty well now, where the stewards also have some discretion.

“From a general perception point of view, we know that less [whipping] is best. That’s the bottom line. Less is best, still while maintaining it as a competition and still while being aware that it’s not a tool to inflict pain or punishment on the horse.”

O’Keeffe said that in staying races with elite jockeys, whip use was nearly non-existent by the 100m mark; when jockeys, provided their horse is still in contention and responding, can use the whip as much as they like. At that point, a decent hoop will already have his mount at top speed and would have no need to whip the horse.

O’Keeffe said that racing’s most outspoken opponents wanted the sport banned entirely, with the whip a secondary point of contention.

“The people who are anti the use of horses for betting on, racing, those sorts of things, they’re not going to be convinced,” he said.

“Whether it’s some whip, no whip, whether it’s long races, short races, hard tracks, soft tracks – they just don’t like it. They don’t think it’s appropriate to use animals for this purpose. That’s their view.

“They wouldn’t care [that it’s a padded whip]. Their goal, their position, is that they don’t think animals should be used for eating, or for other products, or for sport, or especially for betting on. That’s a fairly extreme view, but it is a view. You know what, in all of this there’s probably a very big patch of ground in the middle somewhere.

“Those of my members who say they can all stuff off and we should be able to do whatever we like – no, you can’t. You’ve got to end up in the middle ground somewhere, and hopefully we’re there.”

If the Melbourne Cup was the only horse race you watched this year and you are sympathetic to animals, you may well have been horrified.

One horse, The Cliffsofmoher, became the sixth animal euthanised in as many years in the Cup, after breaking its shoulder. And then, there was the whipping.

The three place-getting jockeys – Kerrin McEvoy, Hugh Bowman and Michael Walker – were all penalised for excessive whip use. Six riders in all, for exceeding the limit of five strikes on the horse before the 100-metre mark.

The Cliffsofmoher's death fuelled animal rights arguments that racing should be boycotted or banned. That being unrealistic, a total ban on whipping has long been demanded by racing’s detractors.

But industry figures, from trainers to jockeys and executives, believe that the whip is entirely misunderstood. That racing does not have an animal cruelty problem, but merely a problem with the perception of animal cruelty.

The modern whip, introduced with 2009 rule changes from the Australian Racing Board, is plastic padded with high-density foam. Racing figures believe that the vast majority of casual race-watchers remain unaware of that fact. It is far from the old leather crop.

Animal rights groups, citing research, insist that the modern padded crop still hurts the animal. Racing bodies, backed by their own studies, say that it does not; that it is a tool designed to create a loud noise and encourage the horse.

Jockeys know that regardless of the whip’s construction, it gives off a sinister image.

“The riders are very aware of the image that they’re portraying,” Australian Jockeys Association chairman Des O’Keeffe told Wide World of Sports.

“The general public absolutely don’t know that it’s a foam padded whip that makes a loud noise, and that’s the encouragement to the horses. It is not designed to – nor does it, we believe – cause pain to the horse. That will be hotly debated, or course, by proponents on the other side of the debate.”

RSPCA Australia maintains that whipping horses remains both cruel and painful.

“The whipping of race horses is our most public form of violence toward animals,” a statement on the RSPCA website says.

“If horses were whipped in the same way, away from the track, it would be a prosecutable animal cruelty offence.

“Yet the Rules of Racing allow jockeys to keep hitting horses.”

The RSPCA cites research that shows horses are often struck with the unpadded section of the whip; that they are regularly struck in the abdomen rather than the hindquarters; and that whipping does not actually have any impact on the horse’s chances of winning.

Jockeys insist that is not the case and that the whip remains an essential tool of the trade. And when it’s a case of small men riding 500kg thoroughbreds at top speed, it is not just to make the horse run faster.

“They’re a safety tool, first and foremost,” O’Keeffe said, pointing to an incident during Race 1 of Cox Plate Day at Moonee Valley, in which jockey Brett Prebble used the whip to refocus his two-year-old horse – True Serendipity – as it veered dangerously off course.

“If that rider – a rider of vast international experience, Brett Prebble – didn’t have the whip to help guide the horse when it decided to head towards the outside rail, it could have been a very, very challenging situation for the horse and the jockey; and the other horses and riders involved.”

O’Keeffe said the Melbourne Cup, as a 3200m staying race watched by an extraordinary number of casual racing fans, was set up to generate whip controversy.

“If you take into account a ride like Hugh Bowman’s or a ride like Kerrin McEvoy’s, a ride in the circumstances of a 3200m staying race where they were sitting back third last and second last and they wanted their horses to try to pick up and get into the contest, which they both did … the rule that’s in place is a very, very difficult rule to adhere to when you’re out there in a field of 24, you’re sitting back in 23rd or 22nd or 21st at the 600m mark,” O’Keeffe said.

“Not only have you got to try to get your horse to participate, respond and contest, you’ve still got to do it while negotiating your way through the field, while counting how many times you may have given the horse that encouragement to hit the line, before you get to the 100m mark.

“It’s not the easiest thing for any athlete to do. Whilst it’s disappointing, it certainly isn’t surprising in the context I’ve described that a rider – even of a McEvoy’s experience, even of a Bowman’s experience – may get it slightly, or in Hughie’s case significantly, wrong.

“How the race is run often dictates how the riders ride. This year’s race unfortunately, with the first and second riders coming from way back, it just lent itself to getting the rule wrong.

“To people involved, did it look bad? To those who are working in the industry and consider themselves reasonable in their interpretation, the answer is absolutely not. But the perception to those who go once a year or just generally follow it would see the reports and say, ‘That’s terrible’.

“Whilst we’d love the riders to get it absolutely right, I understand why they didn’t.”

Finding an appropriate and effective deterrent is difficult. What jockey would not flout the rules in the heat of the moment with a Melbourne Cup within their grasp? Bowman copped an eight-meeting ban for using the whip 12 times on second-placed Marmelo before 100m, more than double the limit, while McEvoy was fined $3000 for whipping winner Cross Counter nine times.

O’Keeffe insists that in most cases, the jockeys understand their role in protecting the sport’s image by limiting whip use.

“I would say that the vast majority of the riders understand the balance between the image of the sport and the competitive nature of the sport,” he said.

“It’s a very fine balance. Yes, it has to be competitive, because people want their horses to do their best; but they also want their horses to do their best without the perception that it’s a free-for-all [using the whip].

“I think the rules are a very good guideline. They’re significant. Overall, I think it’s worked out pretty well now, where the stewards also have some discretion.

“From a general perception point of view, we know that less [whipping] is best. That’s the bottom line. Less is best, still while maintaining it as a competition and still while being aware that it’s not a tool to inflict pain or punishment on the horse.”

O’Keeffe said that in staying races with elite jockeys, whip use was nearly non-existent by the 100m mark; when jockeys, provided their horse is still in contention and responding, can use the whip as much as they like. At that point, a decent hoop will already have his mount at top speed and would have no need to whip the horse.

O’Keeffe said that racing’s most outspoken opponents wanted the sport banned entirely, with the whip a secondary point of contention.

“The people who are anti the use of horses for betting on, racing, those sorts of things, they’re not going to be convinced,” he said.

“Whether it’s some whip, no whip, whether it’s long races, short races, hard tracks, soft tracks – they just don’t like it. They don’t think it’s appropriate to use animals for this purpose. That’s their view.

“They wouldn’t care [that it’s a padded whip]. Their goal, their position, is that they don’t think animals should be used for eating, or for other products, or for sport, or especially for betting on. That’s a fairly extreme view, but it is a view. You know what, in all of this there’s probably a very big patch of ground in the middle somewhere.

“Those of my members who say they can all stuff off and we should be able to do whatever we like – no, you can’t. You’ve got to end up in the middle ground somewhere, and hopefully we’re there.”

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