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HomeSunset Host CoLydia Hislop with the latest on the whip debate as controv…

Lydia Hislop with the latest on the whip debate as controv…


Lydia Hislop discusses the use of the whip in British horseracing over a year on from the BHA whip consultation and wonders if it is following its own recommendations.

The background

“This won’t be the last word on the whip.” Unaccountably, I received no prizes for this 1.01 prophecy on the British Horseracing Authority’s whip consultation last year. There have since been five revisions to that initial set of recommendations, 380 breaches of its iterative rules and much bitter recrimination. Yet still no sign of a full stop.

Predictably, having sown division in the latter part of the Jumps season, arguments about the whip have dominated the Flat season. Yet whilst the Professional Jockeys’ Association, individual riders, media commentators and the BHA play out a war of words twice weekly and especially at Festivals, the twin meteors of animal rights and affordability checks accelerate towards Planet Racing. It’s hard not to feel fatalistic. Come friendly bombs; mess up the mess they call a sport.

Whatever you felt about the whip prior to this latest catalogue of tribulations, the cold hard truth is you won’t have changed your position since this heavily scrutinised process began.

This time last year, many thought the tightening of the rules did not go far enough. Not merely the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare but also some everyday racing fans believe the sport would be better without permitting the whip for encouragement. Their disappointment will only have deepened with what they surely perceive to be the steady dilution of an inadequate starting point.

For this group, their philosophical position is - and always will be - that it is not morally legitimate to strike an animal. End of.

Others - all of whom, it’s safe to say, are fully paid-up racing fans or stakeholders - felt the recommendations went way too far. That even the current revised penalties remain too punitive for jockeys, and disproportionate when compared with other offences like non-trying or causing grave interference. Indeed, some say the sport’s entire direction of travel on the whip needs reversing.

For these advocates, the modern air-cushioned whip is a legitimate tool for encouragement that does not harm the horse, so chipping away at this fundament via further restrictions on its usage does not logically follow. They rail against restrictions based on what they deem to be ill-informed perception, not actuality.

It is surely self-evident why this nuanced argument is far harder to land in the wider world than the abolitionist position. Yet with each revision of the rules in the past six months, those assuming this inward-facing stance seem to have grown in confidence whilst the moral authority of the BHA has drained away - this perhaps symptomatic of a wider dynamic in which a lack of confidence in the regulator has taken hold. This week, for instance, the prism for criticism is racecourse saunas.

King George fallout

Then into this inflammatory atmosphere came the accelerant of a King George in which a compelling duel between Hukum and Westover was overshadowed by the penalties earned by their jockeys - in particular the winner Jim Crowley, who was banned for 20 days and fined £10,000. Going three strikes over the permitted six, he missed automatic disqualification by just one. For many in the sport, this episode has encapsulated all that is wrong with the rules - a great race spoiled by needless self-harm.

Recriminations have largely focussed on the extent to which jockeys were - or rather, were not - kept informed as the steering group evolved its position. One podcast even devoted a 1hr22m special last week “to prove that jockeys were unaware of the new BHA whip rules before their publication last summer”.

The PJA submitted a consultation response on behalf of its members, two jockeys sat on the steering group and others provided expert testimony on request, but it is generally accepted there was a breakdown in communication between the BHA and PJA, and/or between the PJA and its members. At the very least, what information would be conveyed to riders, how and when, was not adequately considered or executed. The PJA was also eating itself at the time, embroiled in damaging internal conflict, leadership upheaval and policy failures.

For what it’s worth, my hypothesis is the rot in this process started with the last-minute prohibition of the forehand within the steering group’s original proposal - a provision belatedly introduced to their discussions, and neither evidenced nor analysed in the manner of comparable measures in their accompanying report. Perhaps someone, somewhere, high up in the process didn’t think their recommendation package was looking meaty enough?

Post-publication, a deputation of senior jockeys then traded heftier penalties and one stroke fewer (from seven to six on the Flat, eight to seven over Jumps) for the removal of the forehand measure. Yet in underestimating the extent to which some colleagues would struggle to adapt to the more technical elements of the new rules, they unwittingly initiated a domino effect of complaint and compromise. In making its series of confusing revisions, the BHA say they are “listening” whilst their critics perceive weakness and an admission of error.

But raking over the past is neither constructive nor relevant to the here and now. Very probably the sport would have ended up in a similar mess however this played out because this is a wedge issue. In its ability to polarise and drain all sense of hope from your life, the whip is a three-word slogan away from joining small boats and gender-neutral toilets on the election trail.

Debate about the whip has unified those with genuine doubts about its legitimacy with others who saw it as a Trojan horse to raise more existential questions about the sport. This even propelled such discussions onto the floor of the House of Commons. The intention, or fond hope, of the whip consultation was to be so comprehensive - having actively courted external input as well as internal views - that it could press pause on the endless political chatter on the subject.

The whip abroad

Meanwhile, societal values have changed, with the position of animals in modern life and their relationship with humans increasingly questioned. Whereas concern about the whip once seemed relatively niche, with occasional often self-inflicted flashpoints, in a world joined up and amplified by social media it has become common currency - if still little understood.

Since the steering group published, other racing jurisdictions have also changed their stance. On 1 January 2023, for example, Germany reduced the maximum number of strokes per race from five to three. From 1 May, France lowered its limit from five to four and as of next month will disqualify any horse whose jockey exceeds that number by five.

Even Hong Kong - regularly cited as a paragon of punter-first policy-making and whose financial input to British racing via the World Pool exerts a powerful tacit influence - is starting to feel the winds of change. Only this month, the South China Morning Post published a reader’s letter urging its Jockey Club not to “lag behind” other countries in “restricting whipping and ensuring animal welfare”.

“It is time for the government and Hong Kong Jockey Club to raise the bar on equine welfare,” Pit Hok Yau wrote from Sha Tin. “In the short run, the Jockey Club should articulate and implement a more clearly defined whipping rule, such as by stating how many strikes are allowed during a race. Whipping should be better monitored, and heftier punishments should be meted out.

“In the long run, the Jockey Club should aim for a whipping ban. And if the Jockey Club doesn’t take action, the Hong Kong government must intervene to ensure a good Hong Kong story about animal welfare.”

We know how this story goes. So, iconoclastic calls for the removal of the stroke limit in favour of the discretional approach currently applied in Hong Kong - where its existing rules merely state “stewards may punish a jockey if in their opinion he has used his whip in an excessive, improper, unnecessary or inappropriate manner” - are facing the extinction of their comparator.

At the other end of the spectrum, Scandinavia is well into its period of adjustment since outlawing the whip for encouragement. Having previously only watched their racing online, last week I attended a meeting in Sweden for the first time and was curious about what I would find.

It was a lowly midweek affair staged predominantly on the sappingly deep sand-based track at Bro Park but there was still plenty to learn for British racing. The customer experience in terms of catering and seating was strikingly superior, for example. Interestingly, 50 per cent of licensed jockeys are female. I witnessed scant excitement, however.

It didn’t help that there is no longer any facility to bet on-course. The smart-looking betting windows are blacked-out and only Swedish nationals can bet into the totalisator pools via an app on their phones.

The races themselves were also strangely sterile, with the running order scarcely changing from start to finish unless a rival weakened. Whether this was primarily due to the depth of surface, the quality of horses or the absence of a tool for encouragement, it’s hard to say.

There was no ugly kicking from the saddle, as I confess I had expected, and the local stewards recounted how they are still developing rules to combat various ingenious measures jockeys have employed to generate encouragement, such as using their reins to administer a galvanising slap. They even cited one rider who bounces out of the saddle, entirely losing contact with the horse and then landing back down, in the surely mistaken belief that this aids impetus.

The fields were loose-packed, as if the riders feared a check to their mount’s stride would be irrecoverable - although I was assured that the more valuable the race, the tighter the jockeys ride. More than once, however, I was left with the impression that a horse produced to challenge did not find as much as I expected. Of course, it may have been the same had their riders been able to use their whip. Clearly, I am not presenting this first-hand testimony as a scientific study.

Research and education

Yet it is the lack of credible data in this area that hampers the sport in taking a sophisticated stance - as the steering group did - on what is most often presented as a binary argument. Recommendation 16 of its report urged the BHA to “commission and support further objective research into the effects of the whip, using any scientific advances to inform policy”. Number 18 also advised the sport to “explain the design, use and regulation of the whip to key audiences”.

Amid the internal din, we have heard nothing of this outward-facing work that will be critical to holding the position carved out by this much-criticised process. In a year that has seen Animal Rising disrupt British racing’s two most iconic races and find a remarkably receptive audience in the mainstream media, it is absurd that such an object lesson on the power of external forces already seems forgotten.

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