04/19/2017 6:46PM

Spirited debate over whip use at panel discussion


CHARLESTON, S.C. – Representatives of riders and of racing commissions clashed over regulations designed to restrict the use of the whip during a panel on Wednesday at the Association of Racing Commissioners International meeting, illustrating the stark divide in the industry over an issue that has drawn increasing attention from animal-welfare advocates.

The issue has inflamed passions on both sides ever since the California Horse Racing Board passed whip restrictions several years ago limiting the number of times a rider could use a whip without giving a horse an opportunity to respond. For the most part, riders across the country have criticized the rules and objected to any suggestion that the restrictions should spread to other jurisdictions.

Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the CHRB, appeared on the Wednesday panel along with several former riders, including Ramon Dominguez, Chris McCarron, and Alan Monat. While Baedeker defended the CHRB’s new rules, the riders raised opposition to it, saying that the restrictions jeopardized their ability to control their horses during races and diminished the tools that are necessary to obtain the best efforts from their mounts.

During the panel, Baedeker gave full support to the CHRB rule, stating that the hundreds of fines issued by the CHRB since the rule went into effect represented a small fraction of the total rides in the state. In addition, he contended that horses were maintaining straighter paths in the stretch as a result of not being whipped as often, and he said that attacks by animal-welfare advocates over the use of the whip had declined.

“We live in a much different culture than we did, even just 10 years ago,” Baedeker said.

Riders’ representatives countered that new developments in whips have reduced the amount of force that is applied to a horse when the crop is used, and that jockeys, racing commissions, and the racing industry at large would be better served if efforts were made to educate the public about the new technology, along with the necessity, at times, of using the whip to control powerful, sometimes unpredictable animals. 

During his presentation, Dominguez frequently referred to whips as “safety equipment,” and he characterized the use of the whip as “encouragement.” He also displayed a new whip that he is helping to develop that has a cylindrical “popper” – the part of the whip that makes contact with the horse. Dominguez contended that the shape of the popper would vastly decrease the incidence of whips causing cuts or welts, in part because the popper has no edges, unlike the rectangular poppers in use now.

Monat, a former rider whose career, like Dominguez’s, was ended prematurely because of injury, urged racing commissions to resist passing regulations akin to those in place in California, saying that a model rule that has been endorsed by the Jockeys’ Guild provided stewards with adequate tools to fine or suspend jockeys for excessive use of the whip in the case of flagrant violations. The rule is likely to be discussed by the RCI’s Model Rules Committee on Thursday.

The California whip restrictions have led to criticism from some horseplayers because of perceptions that the rules have limited riders’ ability to prevail on their horses, especially in tight stretch runs. But Baedeker attempted to cast cold water on those arguments by saying that the restrictions had led riders to modify their tactics.

“The best effort is not necessarily correlated to use of the whip,” Baedeker said. “The most successful riders rely more on riding than whipping.”

Baedeker was joined in support by Brent Stone, the director of racing for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which in 2009 first adopted a rule restricting the use of the whip. Stone said there have been very few cases in which a horse has suffered welts or cuts since the rule was adopted, and he said that the commission now receives very few complaints from animal-welfare advocates.

“Once you get your drivers and riders to buy into the rule, your races look really consistent,” Stone said, while acknowledging that the state had some early problems with getting riders to comply with the rule. “If someone steps outside of those rules, they really stand out. So, the complaints have stopped, and it’s been much easier for our stewards and judges to enforce.”

Both Ontario and California have especially vibrant animal-welfare communities, and both of the jurisdictions likely face more pressure from those constituencies than might be expected in, say, Kentucky. However, animal-rights organizations are growing in power in nearly every state in the U.S., and few think that their influence will wane anytime soon.

In the audience, there was some support from state racing commission representatives to maintain the status quo. Duncan Patterson, the chairman of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission, said he supported Dominguez’s call to focus on educating the public about whip use, citing his experience with developing the latest version of the whip currently in use by many jockeys. That whip was initially developed for the steeplechase riding community, an effort led by Patterson.

Patterson went so far as to take the new whip and smack it against his palm as the whip was being passed around among the audience members, in an effort to demonstrate that the sound of the whip was far sharper than its bite.

“We have not done a proper job in educating people about the use of this new whip,” Patterson said. Then, he corrected himself. “This new crop.”