11/11/2008 12:00AM

Objections sting for whipping foes

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Only a cynic would question the motivation of some of racing's ambitious projects these days, but over the years experience has taught that cynicism can help blunt later disappointment.

Much has been written and spoken lately about looking out for the welfare of the horse. Most of it followed the tragedy of Eight Belles, and much of it was motivated not only by mourning for the gallant filly but by the dire fear of federal intervention.

That terrifying thought led to the quick formation of committees and issuance of deeply moving words, among them some calling for action on whipping. It is an evil, like Lasix, that has become so deeply ingrained in the sport that it is a stain almost impossible to remove. Those who doubt that should check the responses of jockeys at Churchill Downs, where a mini-experiment on more humane whipping was continued from Keeneland.

The track required the use of so-called safety whips in the second and third races each day. The whips, called ProCush, are supposed to be kinder to the horse. Their shorter length and lightness lessen leverage, while their padded poppers or snappers at the end provide noise to startle rather than the stinging punishment provided by conventional leather "feathers."

So far, so good. Except the jockeys don't like them.

Kent Desormeaux, quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal, said: "I've ridden many horses that would never have been a racehorse without a riding crop. Some of them need encouragement, and the ProCush ain't much encouragement. I can use it on my hand, as hard as I want, and it doesn't get my attention even."

In the same story, Bill Troilo said: "Hate 'em; it's like hitting a horse with a fly swatter. You hit a horse with it and you don't get any reaction."

Jesus Castanon at least acknowledged the new ProCush was a big improvement over an earlier version, leading to the possibility that further design improvement might provide punishment less stern but still meaningful.

The bottom line, however, is that all of these jockeys are talking about inflicting pain to get results. In essence, they are saying you need to hurt a horse in order to get and keep his attention, or provide "encouragement," the euphemism of the day.

The state of Kentucky knows better than to mess with Thoroughbred jockeys and trainers. It did have the courage, however, to nullify whipping in harness racing by mandating that drivers keep both lines in their hands, preventing reaching back and inflicting punishment with one-handed, full-swing whipping.

The whipping file in my desk is now four inches thick, containing the cries, complaints, and comments of the last 40 years. There are some eloquent pleas in there, some noble words, and lofty sentiments, but little in the way of action or accomplishment.

Perhaps the most significant document in the file was written seven years ago, by retired Thoroughbred trainer John W. Russell. Intelligent and articulate, he sent a piece to The Blood-Horse, which published it Aug. 25, 2001, under the title "Public Perception."

Russell wrote that "for many people there is a vision that is often indelibly imprinted upon the mind that cannot be ignored - the vision of horses being remorselessly whipped under the pretext that it is justifiable to make them run." He said it was a public perception "that has us all squirming, and it should."

Russell noted that regulators had begun dealing with chemistry, even back then, but were ignoring the use of whips. He said horses are more susceptible to catastrophic breakdown when they become fatigued, which is where the whipping starts.

Russell called rules then in force "anemic," noting that California at the time limited the whip to three feet, nine inches, without restriction on weight. He noted that Hong Kong limited whips to two feet in length, and he lamented the reluctance of stewards here to exercise their discretionary power to punish riders for excessive use of the whip.

Russell's suggestion at the time was to prohibit forehand whipping, noting that back-handed whipping cannot exert the same level of force.

Seven years have passed, some new rules are in place, and experimentation like that in Kentucky and Ontario is under way. No amount of research, however, can accurately measure the silent exodus of those disgusted with what they clearly see.

As long as the inmates make the calls, progress will be painfully slow, and public perception, which looks askance at committees and pious pronouncements, instead favoring action, will continue, in John Russell's words, "to leave us all squirming."