10/21/2011 2:39PM

Hovdey: Possible to win while sparing the whip

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Well, those revolutionary whip rules in England didn’t even last as long as New Coke. The British Horse Racing Authority’s attempt to quiet public outrage over perceived abuse by instituting strict whip counts and Draconian fines blew up in the face of practical application. The rules have been tweaked – jockeys still must be able to count as high as seven or eight – but the financial blow for transgressions will not be as great, effectively shifting the incentive for compliance from financial to altruistic. Let’s see how that works.

Half a world away, Trevor Denman has been wryly amused by the whole affair. For more than 30 years, since becoming the singular voice of California racing, Denman has used his status to promote an enlightened attitude toward the use of the whip in Thoroughbred racing. Much of his motivation has come from his lifelong activism in animal rights issues, although he also insists there is a pragmatic, economic side to his position.

“I’m not saying if you ban whipping people will come flocking back to the racetrack,“ Denman said. “What I’m saying is that as long as we are whipping horses on television, forget about it. Young people are not coming to the races to see animals get punished.

“It’s a whole new world out there now,” Denman continued. “You don’t see circuses anymore with lions in metal cages for 23 hours, elephants tethered to stakes. Zoos have changed, with their severe confinements. But here’s horse racing, plodding along with its head in the sand.”

Denman had ambitions as a jockey in his youth and went as far as he could before it became apparent he would grow out of the profession. At least he knows how it feels to sit atop a Thoroughbred at speed. While he would like to see the whip eliminated from the racing equation completely, Denman is realistic enough to know that will not happen soon, if ever. He sees attempts to strictly limit the number of strikes, as is happening in Britain, as working in some ways against the cause.

“As much as I’m on their side, I think they’ve taken it too far,” Denman said. “When you establish a number and enforce it strictly, you’re just looking to cause an argument.”

There is, he contends, a sensible compromise.

“Just don’t cock the stick,” Denman said. “You hit them with backhanders. And once you hit him backhanded, you give him time to respond before you do it again.”

The difference in power is measurable. A jockey I know provided a demonstration. I would not want to be hit in either manner – and believe me I’ve deserved it on occasion – but with the stick turned forward a rider can more fully engage the muscles of the shoulder and upper arm, and even add more length to the swing with a slight turn of the torso. With the whip turned down, the source of the power is more narrowly confined to the forearm and wrist. The backhand is not nearly as visually dramatic, but with rare exceptions the horse still gets the message.

“You go back far enough you’ll find a day when if the horse did not come back bleeding you were accused of not trying – you didn‘t spur him enough,” Denman said. “When I came here there was an actual rule that you had to hit the horse. Had to hit him. We’ve come a long way.”

Denman points to definite silver linings. Young riders are witnessing more and more veterans sheathe the whip in favor of canny hand rides (see John Velazquez aboard Mrs. Keller in the E.P. Taylor at Woodbine last Sunday, or Patrick Valenzuela on Acclamation in the Pacific Classic). At the North American Racing Academy in Kentucky, Hall of Famer Chris McCarron – a self-admitted swashbuckler with the whip in his youth – is preaching a reformed message of horsemanship and tactics over brute strength. And in New York, the recently retired Richard Migliore works for the New York Racing Association as an on-site mentor for young jockeys, offering guidance he did not get at that age.

“Nobody likes seeing horses being beaten on, myself included,” Migliore said. “Early in my career it was all about the horse, then at one stage I was all about being a jockey. You got a lot of accolades for how hard you hit, for your style of whipping. I got a reputation as a guy who demanded the best out of horses instead of asking the best from them.

“There are times you knew from the sixteenth pole to the wire that a horse was giving his very best and no amount of whipping was going to make him run any faster,” Migliore went on. “But if you just buried your head and hand-rode for your life and got beat, you would get so criticized for that you wound up doing stuff the next time that was more for public perception than what you knew was right.”

“In the last third of my career I went full circle, back to where it was all about the horses,” Migliore went on. “I stopped giving in to what I thought people wanted to see and started doing what I knew was right for the horse. I’m just trying to help these young riders get through those steps a little quicker.”

Migliore and Denman, committed as they are, can do only so much when it comes to changing such a fundamental part of the racing landscape as whip use.

“We need to educate the betting public that it’s not the guy who’s whipping his horse the most or the hardest who’s making his horse run the fastest,” Migliore said. “The whip will get you beat more times than it won’t.”