10/19/2011 3:19PM

Hovdey: Jockeys getting flogged by new whip restrictions


Horse racing’s desperate, ongoing stumble toward acceptance in the modern age took another pratfall last week with the issuance of new whipping rules in England.

For those who missed the news, please note that riders in British flat races now are allowed seven whacks with the crop during a race but only five in the final furlong. Jump jockeys get an extra hit somewhere along the way, but must adhere to the rule of five from the final barrier to the wire.

In addition, a jockey who violates the rules will be subject to forfeit of any prize money he or she might earn. This twist was rammed home last Saturday when Christophe Soumillon whipped Cirrus des Aigles a sixth time inside the final furlong on the way to their three-quarter length upset of So You Think. Whether or not that sixth strike made a difference in the outcome is debatable. It did cost Soumillon his nearly $80,000 share of the purse, along with a five-day suspension, both of which the Frenchman is appealing.

Earlier in the week, former British champion Richard Hughes was fined and suspended for exceeding the new limits. His reaction was to turn in his license out of protest. A flurry of meetings subsequently have been held between officials of the British Horse Racing Authority and leaders of the riding community. Don’t worry. They’ll work it all out.

The use of whips in horse racing is one of those traditions that appear to be easy targets for alteration. Just tell jockeys to count their strokes and pay attention to where they are on the course, which makes it sound no more difficult than walking and chewing gum while listening to Cheap Trick on your iPod, then getting on the right bus.

Some of the protests over the new British rules – that it is hard to keep count in the heat of battle – tend to fall on unsympathetic ears. Riders would be advised not to be overly reliant on such logic, since it tends to fortify certain unjustified, though cruelly common references to intellect and helmet size. One-two . . .ride-ride-ride . . . throw new cross . . . ride-ride-ride . . . three-four-five-six-seven.

The real frustration over whip rules should stem from the fact that authorities are not really responding to calls for kinder treatment of the animals. They are responding to the perception that all whipping is cruel, and that by eliminating or severely curtailing the use of the whip horse racing will appear to be a kinder, gentler endeavor.

When many of the greatest riders in the world convene for the Breeders’ Cup Championships at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 and 5, they will be laboring under Kentucky whip rules familiar to most U.S. jurisdictions. In general terms, the whip can only be used for “safety, correction, and encouragement.” Leeway is allowed especially for control and a horse must be shown the whip before it is used to hit him (a variation on “wait ‘til your father gets home”). Persistent use, however, is frowned upon if a horse “is showing no response under the riding crop.”

In short, American whip rules as applied by stewards are kind of like the definition of pornography. The theory is they know abuse when they see it. Of course, the chances of all three dozen or so U.S. racing states getting together for uniform rules are fairly remote, which is an advantage that a relatively smaller racing nation like Britain has over the colonies. Such rule changes as the whipping limits can have instant application and effect.

Then there is the case of Towcester Racecourse, a little country track in Northhamptonshire, north of London, that positions itself as family-friendly and advertises itself as a charming site for a wedding as much as a robust hunt meet. General admission for the handful of racing days is free.

Earlier this year, the owners of Towcester (pronounced “toaster”) asked the BHA to allow them to conduct their jump racing whip free for their Oct. 5 meet. In the face of the new rules coming down the line, the request was denied.

“What we are going to do is reapply to the BHA,” said Kevin Ackerman, Towcester’s general manager. “We still have an aspiration to race under hands and heels and conduct a pilot to understand the effects and see if more people are encouraged to come to the racecourse.”

If it is all about perception, then Eddie Delahoussaye, the retired Hall of Famer, may have been one of the most contradictory riders in the history of the American sport. There were occasions on which he would hand-ride to victory in major races while the riders around him were whipping furiously. On other occasions he would smack a horse, in perfect Cajun rhythm, just as many times as he thought they needed to get the job done.

“What are they doing over there, punishing people for trying?” Delahoussaye wondered.

“One year I got fined here in California for not hitting a horse,” Delahoussaye noted. “It was on a bad track, and he was sore. But I got fined anyway. Go figure.”

Delahoussaye’s most famous day with the whip occurred in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita when he and Hollywood Wildcat were in a ferocious stretch duel with Paseana for the Distaff. Delahoussaye lost his whip, but still won by a nose.”

“I guarantee if I’d have lost by a nose they would have come after me,” he said. “The thing is, it’s not how many times you hit a horse. It’s how you hit them and when. You can hit a horse only five times and cut him up bad, or you can hit him 20 times in the stretch, keeping in rhythm, and the horse will be fine. It’s up to the racing officials to know the difference between abuse and proper use.”