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Giving safer whips a crack
Calvin Borel knew they would be coming.
Turning for home in the Woodward Stakes on Sept. 5 at Saratoga, Borel had the lead riding Rachel Alexandra. She already had turned back foes hounding her during the first two-thirds of the Woodward. Now the closers were on the hunt.
At the three-sixteenths pole, Borel went to his whip. He smacked Rachel three times right-handed, switched over to his left hand, whipped her five times, and then went back to his right for a final surge as Macho Again drew nearly even.
|Click for a look at the differences between
new and old whips. (PDF)
In the final 150 yards or so, Borel gave Rachel Alexandra 15 pops of the crop, tapping her on the shoulder a couple of times and showing her the whip between smacks to the rump. At the wire, it was Rachel by a head.
Borel had whipped the filly more than 20 times on her hindquarters. In the days that followed, online blogs hummed with comments, and letters to the editor came into Daily Racing Form: Had Rachel Alexandra been abused by Borel's whip?
But there was another question, nowhere asked: Had Rachel even felt the sting of Borel's whip in the Woodward?
Borel was using the latest in riding-crop technology, a low-impact whip tipped with a long, padded popper. Lighter and producing less sting, the new whips may cost riders a measure of control and instill in some horses less urgency to give their all. But throughout the country, new whip rules are coming into effect because of pressure placed on racing following the high-profile deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles, whose catastrophic breakdown after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby spurred an industry-wide assessment of the safety of racehorses.
Three states - Kentucky, Indiana, and South Dakota - have mandated use of the new, more horse-friendly whips. California has a proposed state rule, and jockeys there already are riding with new crops, a change mandated by Del Mar and Hollywood Park racetracks. Santa Anita, Delaware Park, Monmouth Park, and Philadelphia Park have "house rules" requiring the use of new crops. In New York, jockeys at the Saratoga meet took the lead, electing to use new whips beginning Aug. 16. New whips are already fully in use or being phased into tracks operated by Churchill Downs Inc. Canadian venues require new whips, and stewards there scrutinize the number of times jockeys strike their horses, handing out fines for overuse of the crop.
The new equipment feels and works differently than the old. The popper on the end of a traditional riding crop is about two inches long and made of solid leather. Used too vigorously, it can raise welts and draw blood. Not so the new whips, which are tipped by a popper about six inches long. Sewn inside a soft pad of woven fibers made to look like leather is a piece of foam. When it strikes horseflesh, the lighter, thickly padded whips make an impressive pop while delivering their cushioned message.
Horses used to being encouraged by the whip's sting may no longer feel compelled to respond. Riders accustomed to whaling away in the stretch may discover they're wasting energy.
"The whip is not a whip," Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux said during the Keeneland fall meet. "It's a noisemaker."
A few days earlier, at Hawthorne in Chicago, veteran rider E.T. Baird had said: "If I had to make a comparison, the old one, it's 'pop,' and the new one, it's like you're hitting with a marshmallow."
An impetus for change
Eight Belles was whipped 10 times by jockey Gabriel Saez in the 2008 Derby, a low number, given the magnitude of the event. Still, for many people these days, with the presence of domesticated animals in daily life greatly diminished and with more attention to animal rights, whipping feels unacceptable.
Outcry against whips was heard as far back as 1980 in England. In April 2007, padded whips became mandatory in flat races there, and steeplechase riders in the British Isles already were using softer crops. And while racing insiders would have scoffed at the idea that Eight Belles broke down because of whipping, racing's critics did not hesitate to make the jump. On the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a blog post from last summer still makes reference to Eight Belles's breakdown in the context of the whip:
"Most of you probably remember the tragedy at the 2008 Kentucky Derby in which a young filly, Eight Belles, was whipped mercilessly in the final stretch, only to break both her front ankles after she crossed the finish line," reads the posting.
It was not just PETA, the radical edge of anti-racing, responding to the Eight Belles breakdown. Coming out of the 2008 Derby, the public's perception of the sport might have been at an all-time low. A consumer research firm employed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association compared racing's image to that of Tylenol in the 1980s and boxing in the 1990s.
The Grayson Jockey Club formed its Thoroughbred Safety Committee on May 8, 2008, just days after the Derby. Issues taken up there already had surfaced in two earlier Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse summits. Three concerns were attacked in this initial phase of the post-Eight Belles crisis: Toe grabs, steroids - and the riding crop.
There was talk of banning the whip, but jockeys had to explain why that wasn't possible. For example, if a horse running full speed decides it would like not to finish negotiating a turn and heads for the outside fence, a polite request from a 110-pound human may not be heeded.
"A whip is a useful guiding tool," said jockey Robby Albarado. "If a horse is getting out, pop, pop, pop - you can control them with it."
The first new whips were obtained for use in flat races during the 2008 meet at Ellis Park in western Kentucky. At the recommendation of the Jockey Club, riders there began trying the padded whips that had been adopted by steeplechase jockeys. But the riders encountered problems.
"Steeplechase riders, you know, they can be 6-foot-1," said Johnston, the Guild rep. "When our riders reach back to hit with that length whip, they don't get where they need to be. So the first whips were too short. In the second phase, the poppers didn't pop at all. The jocks said it was like hitting them with a feather. The horses weren't respecting it."
Even when manufacturers got the length right and put more pop in the popper, there were further setbacks.
"Those early new whips were breaking," said jockey John Velazquez. "I broke three the first week [at Keeneland] last spring."
Larry Fowler, who is based in Kentucky and has been making whips for 22 years, theorized the new whips might have broken more often because jockeys were striking harder than in the past, trying to compensate for the cushioned blow. Or perhaps the new poppers transferred energy differently.
"Maybe the recoil was into the shaft and not so much into the popper," Fowler said.
New whips are more expensive than old whips, costing from $60 to $100. Their length and weight varies. Although the Association of Racing Commissioners International has released model rules governing crops, it is up to jurisdictions to set basic whip guidelines. ARCI standards require a whip weigh no more than eight ounces, be less than 30 inches long, and have a shaft at least one-half inch in diameter. The flap, or popper, must be between .8 and 1.6 inches wide.
New whips are assembled much like the old. They start with a four- or five-foot tapered fiberglass rod, which is cut into a whip length. The fiberglass is then wound with duct tape to achieve a desired width. Around the tape goes fabric, and over the fabric, a rubber handle. At the last, the popper gets slid on and glued into place.
"At first, I was like, 'Nah, I can't believe they're making jockeys do this,'" said Garrett Broussard, who makes whips for Desormeaux, Albarado, and Edgar Prado and works as a jockey's valet at Fair Grounds. "But now I'm used to it."
No horse or rider is the same
How will the new whips affect the performance of a rider? As usual, it depends on the rider and how much they relied on the whip to begin with.
"Different riders have gotten the most of a horse different ways," said trainer Neil Howard, who has been on the racetrack since the 1970s.
Some famed riders of the past were known for making the most of their stick.
"There was [Angel] Cordero, of course, and Jorge Velasquez," Howard said. "Of course, the guy I consider the god of riders, Pat Day, he probably didn't wear out one whip in his entire career. [Braulio] Baeza, he was another one, a finesse rider. They all have the same goal but get there a different way."
Riders such as Garrett Gomez in Southern California spoke favorably about the new sticks even as they were in the process of being adopted. But many jockeys say the whips take getting used to.
"Initially, I didn't like it," Albarado said. "I thought it was useless, and I'm not one of those guys that's going to overpower a horse. But everything's changing now. The perception is we're using a safer whip."
Advocates for an all-out whip ban contend striking a horse will not actually make it run faster, but that is not the prevailing view among current riders, who say some horses do respond to the whip by exerting themselves more fully, some don't.
"It takes them out of being lazy," said Baird. "Most of the horses, they're pretty free-running. A lot of them, it wouldn't bother them if you hit them with a bazooka. They're going to protect themselves. But you can compare it to people: Some are more motivated, more aggressive, than others."
Said Velazquez, who is not noted as a heavy whipper: "I always thought you've got to get in a rhythm with a horse first before you worry about whipping. There are some times when I feel like a horse needs to be whacked a couple times to really get the most out of them."
James Graham often has gotten mounts because he is a strong jockey who readily goes to his stick.
"I'm an aggressive rider, and I get paid to ride the way I ride," said Graham. "I use the whip more than average. It's fair to say that they do respond more to the old whips. The new whips are light - very light. Some of the cheaper [horses] won't respond as much."
Desormeaux said he has at least grown accustomed to the different feel of the new sticks during the last several months.
"All I know is everyone is using the same thing," he said. "It's a level playing field."
New whips, new rules
It remains to be seen whether a new generation of whips is accompanied by a new era of whip regulation. Jockeys in Australia recently staged a strike when the national authority attempted to impose regulations on how often a horse could be whipped in a race, and the authority eventually ceded ground. The 2008 Cheltenham Festival in England, a major jump-racing meet, turned chaotic and contentious as stewards handed down a flurry of bans for abuse of the whip. Riders felt confused about what was acceptable. Less-informed members of the public got the sense abuse was rampant, though cushioned crops were being used.
Canadian tracks have been handing penalties for overuse of the whip since new standards took full effect Sept. 15. "It's been fairly smooth, with one or two wrinkles," said Woodbine steward Gunnar Lindberg.
Jockeys riding at Woodbine can't raise their arm above their shoulder when using their crop. And after whipping a horse three times in a row, a jockey must wait at least one stride, and preferably two or three, before delivering another blow. Fines for violations are progressive and can be costly in stakes races worth more than $100,000, where too much whipping can cost a jock 20 percent of his purse earnings.
Riders at Woodbine, faced with a loss of income, are making adjustments. But elsewhere, jockeys find rules governing use of the whip difficult to take. In the United States, use of the whip is monitored by track stewards, but there are no codified rules.
"I think that goes way beyond," said Velazquez, who is chairman of the Jockey's Guild. "You go to one place, they fine you for hitting too much. You go to another place, they want to fine you for not getting into a horse enough if you miss third by a nose or something."
Maybe in some future stakes at Saratoga, a jockey will indeed be brought to heel for the number of times he strikes his mount. But in this year's Woodward, Borel, wielding a new crop, could use it as he chose - not really knowing if his whip was having any great effect.
"At Pimlico, I hit her twice, and that's all it took," said Borel, who carried an old-fashioned crop when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness. "Two times, and she was gone. [At Saratoga], I was hitting her, but it was just to keep her momentum going. It looks so bad, it was pitiful. To my view, these sticks make it worse, because you hit them so many times. You don't know if they're going to respond."
Borel, old racetrack hand and clearly no cheerleader for the new whips, said this from the jocks' room recently at Churchill Downs, readying himself for a day's worth of mounts. He would be riding all that afternoon carrying one of his Broussard-made, heavily padded crops. Like it or not.
A sampling of whip regulations at racetracks around the world:
United States: Variable regulations with ARCI guidelines. Whip use is monitored by track stewards.
England: Whip's contact area must be covered by shock absorbing material. A rider cannot raise the whip above his shoulder or whip his horse more than once per stride. Rider can hit the horse any place except on the quarters with the whip in either the backhand or forehand position and down the shoulder with the whip in the backhand position.
Canada: Whips conform to the ARCI model rules. Jockeys may whip horses no more than three times in a row and must break for at least one stride, preferably two or three. Jockeys cannot raise arm above shoulder, and the whip is not to be used when a horse is not visibly responding or is not in contention.
Japan: There are no limitations on whip use during a race.
Hong Kong: Stewards may punish a jockey if in their opinion he has used his whip to excess or in an improper manner. After a race, if a horse is found to have been marked in any way by a jockey, the rider will be fined by stewards.
Australia: Leather pads on the whip are not permitted, and the foam in the padded segment of the whip must be at least 0.28 inches thick. Riders are limited to seven forehand strikes in the last 100 meters of a race; before the 100-meter mark, the rider cannot use the whip in a forehand manner in consecutive strides and may not use it in a forehand manner on more than five occasions.
France: A rider who whips his horse more than eight times in a race will be suspended or fined. The rider may also be sanctioned if he uses his whip with great force or when the horse is only 2 years old.
* Handicapping roundups from Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, Hollywood, and Calder
* Jay Privman's Q&A with trainer Linda Rice
* Glenye Cain Oakford on how Morgan's Ford Farm is thriving in a downturn
* Marty McGee on how Macho Again saves his best for big races
* Michael Hammersly on the relevance of synthetic Derby preps
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes