Whips. We have come to the crossroads on whips. Sure, we should have been here long ago, but, alas, here we are now. Sadly and strangely, whips (and Lasix but that’s for another day) have been thrown in the mix with injuries and fatalities at Santa Anita. The California racetrack has a problem, that’s obvious. Why that has become a whip or Lasix issue is unfathomable. Breakdowns at Santa Anita have nothing to do with whips or Lasix.
Almost 20 years ago, I was asked to speak at a school near Saratoga. As a jockey turned journalist, I spoke to different grades about each career. At the end of each presentation, the kids were encouraged to ask questions. They asked a lot of questions, a lot of great questions. Each grade asked two similar questions. Do the whips hurt the horses and what happens to the horses after they retire from racing? Tough questions. Prudent questions. And questions that affect a young person’s opinion of our sport. We are trying to cultivate new fans. My experience that day was far from a detailed study, obviously, but elementary and middle school kids are concerned about those two things. I struggled to answer those questions that day, and like all of us, still struggle to answer them.
I’m proud to say, Thoroughbred racing has addressed the retirement issue since then and has made substantial improvements. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than it was then. It needs more attention, more funding, more awareness but it has been improved.
As for whips, well, it’s been a slower process. Yes, cushioned whips are better. The whips of yesteryear were weapons, long, thick and heavy. I got hit in the arm by a rival jockey once in a race. Yes, it hurts, and the welt lasted for days. I rode a few races with a shorter, cushioned whip, they are certainly better. I guess, any time you’re hit with something, it hurts, at least mentally. But the discussion goes far beyond whether they hurt or not. Today, it’s about perception. And more importantly, perception in a changing world.
A few weeks ago, a filly I bought as a yearling ran in a maiden claimer at Tampa Bay Downs. She was 1-9, she drew off and won by 15 lengths, the jockey reached back and hit her twice in the stretch. I have no idea why he hit her. Is it just a habit? Is there some unwritten rule that a jockey must look like he’s doing something? Is he just caught in the moment? Is he mad at her?
I know the difference between being a jockey and being a spectator. Nothing feels as easy or comfortable to a jockey as it does to a fan or spectator, that I know, but this one was a penalty. Did the stewards talk to him about it? Doubtful. Did the owner? Doubtful. Did the trainer? Doubtful.
Another jockey won a big chase at Aintree last week, it was a beautiful ride delivered with precision from the front, they landed over the last and the jockey picked up the whip and hit the horse numerous times. My wife, Annie, and I watched it from our couch, “Oh, don’t him, don’t hit him, don’t hit him.” I understand the urgency of winning a race, but I wonder would the sport be better off if those jockeys didn’t hit those horses? Would the horse be better off? Do whips limit or shorten horse’s careers? I think they do. We struggle to keep horses sound, I mean struggle. The fragility of the horse is shocking. Own them, manage them, the attrition rate is rapid, flat and jump, America and Europe. Beyond physical soundness, we are constantly trying to keep horses mentally sound, trying to keep them calm, trying to build trust, trying to work as a team. Then, on game day, you hand over the horse to get whipped. It doesn’t make sense. Do whips lead to harder races for horses? They certainly can’t make them easier, that we know.
As always in Thoroughbred racing, we have gone from zero to 60 at Corvette speed. Instead of gradually or systematically looking at a problem and creating a structured approach to alleviate the problem, we have entertained ideas that seem like over-corrections and knee-jerk reactions.
I rode 1,000 jump races, the whip was never discussed. No steward, trainer, owner ever brought it up to me. I definitely hit horses too often and too hard. Never when the race was unwinnable. Actually, now that I think about it, I had a trainer berate me about why I didn’t hit a tired timber horse to finish third in soft ground at Far Hills. I didn’t because it didn’t feel right. That was the only time a whip was discussed. Now, to win a race, I hit them. Hokan in the 1998 New York Turf Writers? I hit him too much, he won by a half-length, it was a Grade 1 at Saratoga, but there is no doubt I hit him too much. For me, I had a better rhythm and more strength when I used my whip in my right hand. Could I have learned to have a better hand ride? No doubt. Should I have? No doubt.
But what do we do about it? Outlaw whips? Perhaps that’s the goal but let’s not go from zero to 60 on this. Same with Lasix. Let’s take slow steps and see where it leads. I think about synthetic tracks when the sport went from zero to 60, mandating them in California before anyone really knew how it would work and then ripping them out when it didn't go as planned. We turned what could have been a positive into a negative. We must not do that with whips.
The easiest and simplest first step is don’t turn the whip over. When a jockey uncocks a whip from down to up, it changes the leverage, the elbow comes up and the whip comes above the shoulder. When down, that leverage is decreased, a jockey can easily hit a horse with a whip turned down, just not as hard and certainly not as glaring as in today’s climate when the whip is turned over and the elbow goes out, the whip goes almost perpendicular to the horse and comes down with a hammer chop. This is ugly. This is powerful. To the horse. To the fan. Whip down, the whip stays low, it’s more of a flick of the wrist and the force is limited. Try this first.
Whip rules are tricky. Europe has been wrestling with this far longer than we have been thinking about it. Number of times, time to respond, height of a jockey’s arm, force…horses win, jockeys get fined for breaching the whip rules, horse wins the race, beats a horse ridden by a jockey who abided by the rules. Does that work? Is this fair? Stop and think about it, what happens when a jockey hits a horse too often, too high, too hard and wins a race, does he get disqualified? Whoa, tell that to a bettor who backed that horse. Does the jockey just get fined? That’s hardly a deterrent. I don’t have an answer here, I do think stewards should be more diligent about talking to jockeys, warning jockeys and if necessary, fining jockeys for abusive whip use. I watch races all day, the amount of horses who are in the back of the field, hopelessly beaten, not earning a significant check and are getting whipped is extraordinary and excruciating. You see it every race, every day. Stewards need to address this first, don’t bandy fines around with abandon, but begin the dialogue, begin the slow process of changing the habits of jockeys. Obviously, not all jockeys are doing this. If we can’t correct jockeys hitting hopelessly beaten horses, we don’t have a chance of correcting jockeys hitting competitive horses when money is on the line (for bettors, owners, trainers and jockeys).
The biggest concern with abolishing the whip is safety for the jockey. A jockey can correct a horse from getting in, getting out, with a flick of a whip, a slap on the neck, it’s not abusive, it’s corrective, necessary. It’s instinctive and easy for a jockey, take that away and I am concerned that a dangerous job becomes more dangerous. Having said that, plenty of horses react poorly, ducking in or ducking out from the whip. I don’t have an answer for that – yet. Nobody does. That’s why we need to take it slowly, allowing for study, for change, instead of knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation. To be a strong sport, we need to self govern, the whip is a good place to start.
It is certainly a learned trait, a habit. Jockeys whip less in California than they do in New York. Why? Could young jockeys learn to hand ride horses instead of whipping horses? Could they learn to keep the whip down rather than turning it up? Of course. Begin that process, teach young jockeys a better way. Now.
As for Santa Anita’s proposed day of whipless racing – which was just put on hold (for now) – that’s zero to 60 and now back again. I would rather see racing jurisdictions introduce one race (same goes for Lasix, start with one Lasix-free race). Just one race to start. Owners and trainers enter horses who they think don’t need a whip, jockeys go out with an open mind and see how it goes, collect the information. Ask the fans, the bettors, the horsemen what they think of the experiment. Visually, surely, it will be a better sight, more palatable. Or, thinking about it further, could you have a race where the whips aren't turned over? Could that be a place to start?
The mission, I believe, is to eventually phase out the whip, but nobody knows if this will work. Allow it to happen slowly, organically where in five years, 10 years, we look back and say, “Man, remember when we used to whip horses?”
At least those kids at that school wouldn’t be asking that question.