Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Beating this whip issue to death

While it appears talks have stalled on whether I'll be cracked a few times with the new, "cushioned" racing whip, perhaps I should rethink my choice of jockeys at the front of the line to administer the beating. Chantal Sutherland just might show up with the stiff old whip.

Besides, I've been beaten to the lash by an Australian bloke who calls himself "The Horse Whisperer," who took 19 strokes from the new cushioned whip -- one more than new Aussie rules permit -- and he said the whip, through his jeans anyway, "does not hurt at all."

Sutherland was fined $200 and her mount, Sans Sousi, was stripped of the $40,080 winner's share on Sept. 4 at Woodbine when the jockey showed for the post parade with the wrong (old) whip. Told by another rider that she had the wrong whip, Sutherland dropped hers off and picked up another at the gate, where a few pieces of extra equipment are kept in the event of a last-minute need before the race.

Unfortunately, the track's whip was also was of the banned variety.

The incident -- which Sutherland doesn't contest and for which she shoulders full blame -- plus the stunt from Down Under give us pause to consider the new whipping rules in Canada and in Australia, where jockeys recently went on strike in protest.

Both jurisdictions not only mandated the "kinder" whip -- which replaces a hard leather crop and its stinging leather tassel on the end with a stick wrapped in foam to better avoid hurting the horse -- they also attempt to limit the number of times a rider strikes his horse in the closing stages of the race.

For starters, if jurisdictions are going to mandate the cushioned whip and fine or otherwise penalize riders who forget and use the old crop, then Woodbine should've had an appropriate whip at the gate to hand over to Sutherland on Sept. 4 when she arrived to ride "whipless," having ditched her own crop on the way to the gate. Stewards fined Sutherland for forgetting about the new rule, but the track itself didn't think to update its own equipment cache. (And Sutherland said she "was going to get days" if she rode without a whip at all, hence her decision to use the track's whip even though it was a banned variety.)

And while the only way to really enforce competition rules -- particularly those involving doping -- is to disqualify a horse that wins outside the rules and strip its connections of the purse, leaving zero reward for cheating, it's hard to believe that Sans Sousi won the race because Sutherland (who went light on the stick in the stretch) used the wrong whip. So a $40,080 penalty is no slap on the wrist, it's more like breaking an owner's arm, and arguably is more punishment than the offense really seems to merit.

Aside from these compliance and enforcement issues from a single Woodbine race, whether these changes are for the better remains open to some debate.

One viable complaint raised about the combination of new-whip/strike-frequency rules is this: If the cushioned whip is so much kinder to the horse, why must the frequency of its use be more tightly restricted than was the use of the old whip?

It's worth noting that not everyone agrees that the new whip is pain-free. As a response to my earlier posts on the matter, Glenn Petty, executive director of theVirginia Thoroughbred Association, says he has hit himself in the calf with both whips, and while both did smart, the "Pro-Cush" whip just didn't hurt as much. And retired jockey Garrett Redmond, in response to Sid Fernando's question about whether Rachel Alexandra was whipped too much by Calvin Borel in her Woodward Stakes win, has said that he believes any whip hurts the horse, and that no whip is ever necessary in a race. (Although it seems most jockeys don't agree with Mr. Redmond and do want to keep their whips.)

My take is, do we really want jockeys trying to count whip strikes while they ride, all the way down to a blanket finish? Isn't that a bit like asking a NASCAR driver to count how many times he taps the brakes (or another car's bumper) in the last few laps of a race at Bristol? 

Aussie jockeys briefly went on strike over the rules, claiming they put riders at greater risk. Because such rules give jockeys one more thing to think about at the most mentally and physically taxing point of a race -- both for rider and horse -- I would tend to agree. (And Australian rules are already being amended.)

It's one thing to tell jockeys to go lighter on the stick as a general rule and to cease whipping a horse that can't improve its position. And then to warn that stewards will be watching closely and ruling harshly against those who flog an animal excessively or without cause.

What these jurisdictions have tried to do is appease those who demand changes in the name of horse welfare (some of whom, mind you, would really prefer to see no racing at all) by writing a meticulous set of rules and then putting all the burden for their observance on the jockey.

Granted, the rider is the human most directly responsible for lessening the impact of the whip on races -- that is, on horses. But we trust stewards to use their judgment in so many other instances of rider safety and misconduct that it is unreasonable to absolve the stewards of any responsibility by making the whip rules a case of violation-by-the-number: Strike the horse 18 times and win, that's perfect; hit him 19 times and you're taken down to last place. (And such rules are more stringent in the closing yards, leaving jockeys to count poles, whip strokes, and even strides of the horse while still steering, urging and trying to win.)

If horse racing wants to crack down on the whip criticism, nothing other than throwing away the whip will do. And should that be the eventual course of action, I'm fine with it, as it still leaves all horses and riders on an equal footing.

Just expect that the animal-protectionists won't be satisfied for long, and will be back shortly with their next demand.

If the purpose of revised whipping rules is to continue giving riders whatever control they have (or believe they have) with the whip in their hands, while also protecting horses, the greatest step is the cushioned whip -- not some arbitrary number of times a horse can legally be struck with said whip.

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