Whip lash

This was going to be mainly about tomorrow’s Qipco Champion Stakes, but it is difficult to walk around the room sipping red wine, nibbling canapés and talking about the state of the economy while there is an elephant in it.  You simply can’t avoid talking about the elephant.

There are a hundred different issues regarding the introduction of the new whip rules in the UK this week, so here are just three.  Firstly, there seems to be a common acceptance now that there was a need for a change to the rules as they stood.  When people have been commenting on the new rules this week, they have often begun with the opening gambit: something needed to be done. 

But why?  Because of aesthetics, that’s why.  Because the BHA decided that the manner in which jockeys used the whip until last Monday looked bad.  Spurred on by a public outcry after the Grand National – which was only partly to do with the whip, by the way – the BHA’s research told them that a significant proportion of people instinctively disagree with the use of the whip in racing.  But these ‘people’ referred largely to those with no interest in racing, and those who generally – unsurprisingly, given that they had no interest in racing – displayed a lack of understanding of the use of the whip in racing.

Nobody wants to see horses mistreated in the name of sport, but it has been acknowledged that the new air-cushioned whip does not hurt the horse.  And it isn’t just the jockeys saying it, jockeys volunteering to publicly receive a couple of smacks, the BHA have themselves recognised that as a fact, proven through their own research.

Now we are getting close to the why.  If the new whip does not cause the horse any pain or any distress, then the limiting of its use is not an animal welfare issue, it’s an image issue.  It’s all about appearances.  The day you start to change the rules of racing because of what looks good or bad as opposed to because of what is good or bad is a sad day for the sport, and much more so when the changes have been implemented apparently to try to placate those who have no interest in racing, and who probably couldn’t care less whether a jockey hits a horse seven times or eight times, not to mind the fact that they will probably never darken racing’s doorway anyway.

Second issue, the detail.  Just take the new rules as they pertain to flat racing for a second (without even going into the fact that you are allowed just one more stroke in a three-and-a-half-mile chase than you are in a five-furlong sprint).  You are allowed hit a horse seven times in total in a flat race of any distance, but you are only allowed hit him five times inside the final furlong.  How does that make sense either from an aesthetic or from a welfare point of view?

Richard Hughes hit More Than Words seven times in the 7.20 at Kempton last night, staying within the rules.  However, because six of them were inside the final furlong, he is deemed to have broken the rules, and was punished with a 10-day ban.  If his second stroke had been outside the furlong pole last night, he would have been okay.  Yet, how would that have looked better?  Or how would it have been better for the horse’s welfare?

Even without the ridiculous final-furlong rule, how is it that seven strokes looks fine but eight strokes looks bad?  And it is a situation of complete disequilibrium that the penalties for jockeys who break the new rules are as harsh as they are, yet the horse is allowed keep the race, the owner and trainer still benefit, and the jockey on the runner-up, who kept within the rules, such as they are, is not rewarded for so doing.

People say that jockeys should be able to count their strokes, but there is much more going on in the heat of competition than counting your strokes.  It would be like telling a football player that he was only allowed three touches before he had to pass.

Third issue, the timing.  It is very difficult to see the rationale behind bringing in these measure on the first day of the week that leads up to the richest and one of the most important day’s racing ever staged on British soil, when all the talk should be about tomorrow’s horses and tomorrow’s races.  Perhaps they were introduced now in the belief that jockeys would ride to them on Saturday, while the sport is high-profile and racing’s audience is high.  It smacks of an alarming shallowness of thought.

You think Qipco – underwriters of the £3 million prize fund for Champions’ Day – are happy with the media coverage the event has received thus far?

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