09/15/2008 11:00PM

Whipping rules gaining momentum


TUCSON, Ariz. - With chaos on Wall Street and around the world, and with the nonstop blare and clatter of talking heads on television, whipping of horses gets a low-priority call.

That is, unless you're in the business of horse racing - particularly if you're a horse - or one of the thinning crowd that used to go to tracks to bet on them but now prefers the comfort of other quarters to do it, including in front of your home computer.

Change is enveloping whipping as it is everything else. Terry Lanni of MGM, who knows a lot of about horse racing, people, and entertainment, expressed it best to a conference of newspaper editors in Las Vegas recently by invoking the words of former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. "If you don't like change," he said, "you will like the role of irrelevance even less."

Change is coming to whipping, the pendulum swinging from rhetoric to real action.

It started, as do so many racing innovations, in Ontario, where the racing commission convened an industry working session to explore use of the whip.

Submissions were solicited from the entire racing community. John Blakney, the commission's executive director, wrote, "The ORC recognizes that there are varying degrees of opinion on the subject of whip use, both within horse racing and the community at large. It also believes this close examination of the degree of acceptability of the practice is both appropriate and timely, within the framework of social responsibility and concern for the welfare of the horse."

Jockeys and drivers, owners and breeders, veterinarians and track operators, and a few fans, showed up.

There was no unanimity, but there was consensus, and the commission is moving forward with these "working principles": a recognition that the whip is a necessary tool in racing; the welfare of the horse, based on good research and science; the safety of racing participants, including the horse; simple, clear, and consistent rules and enforcement; and customer/public perception efforts and education.

The commission is establishing breed-specific working groups, investigating innovations in equipment and technological changes as options to whips, and issuing customer surveys.

While they were working in Ontario, one of North America's leading harness drivers, Wally Hennessey, walked into the office of Steve Wolf, senior director of racing operations at the Isle at Pompano Park in Florida.

"We have to do something about whipping," Hennessey said to Wolf, whose eyes brightened at hearing this from a perennial star at the track's winter meetings.

Wolf, a top publicity man as well as a racing official, is a good listener, and a follow-upper. He asked Hennessey what he had in mind. The driver suggested taking the popper, or snapper, off the whips as a starter.

"If you can get the horsemen to support the idea of doing something, we can go far beyond that," Wolf told Hennessey.

So the two contacted Mike Deters, president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, who said in effect, "Let's go!"

They then went to the leaders of the drivers' colony, asking them if they would support a ban on one-handed whipping.

They said yes.

Wolf then went to his judges - presiding judge John Yinger and his assistant, 20-year-old Aaron Feinberg, who graduates from college in December and is believed to be the youngest licensed active judge in the country. Wolf found more support.

From there, rules were researched by Feinberg, and new ones were formulated:

* No taking the lines in one hand at any time.

* No raising the whip arm behind the helmet.

* No whipping under the shaft of the sulky.

* No abuse of the horse.

* Fines and suspensions, from $100 up to $1,000 and as many as 30 days, at the discretion of the judges.

The rules went into effect last week.

As this is written, three programs have been raced with them, with full fields and not a single violation. Wolf said there have been only a few grumblers who said they could have been second rather than third with whipping. But even they agreed that as long as everyone was on the same page, they had no problem abiding by the new order.

Wolf walked the ramp and the clubhouse, asking regular bettors how they feel about the changes. Virtually all said the same thing: As long as everyone is conforming, they had no great problems with them.

This week, a Kentucky panel indicated it was preparing to issue new regulations governing whipping; Indiana continues to be a vigilant leader; and the gospel is spreading to an expanding and emboldened congregation.

One would swear, over the raucous roar and bleating from the TV, that if you listen carefully you can hear a soft whinny of approval from the stable area floating happily in the fall air.