And It’s One, Two Three Whips You’re Out

When a problem comes along

You must whip it

Before the cream sits out too long

You must whip it

When something’s goin’ wrong

You must whip it

Whip it good

–  Devo

Unlike my old editor (oops, I mean my former editor) at Horseplayer Magazine, Frank Scatoni, I haven’t been able to completely shake off the magnetic field that seems to surround New York, tugging at ex-pats like they were so many iron shavings. Perhaps it occasionally tilts my blog eastward, so when I asked for some feedback on issues pertinent to California, Frank suggested the new rule that limits jockeys to only three consecutive whips, and then a pause to give the horse a chance to respond before they can start cracking that whip again. Oh, and the CHRB rule also changed the name of the offending implement to “riding crop,” which makes absolutely no difference if you are the horse.

This rule had the support of the Jockeys’ Guild and such distinguished members as John Velasquez, Gary Stevens and Kent Desormeaux. And it was interesting to hear most of them say they minimized their use of the whip, meaning it was those OTHER guys that the rule was meant to target. CHRB chair Chuck Winner said

“This is an important issue. We are making every effort, working with the industry, to try to do what we can to protect the integrity of this sport and the horses and the riders. It’s a long time coming, and it’s a big step in my view.”

Then he proceded to explain how the CHRB was also protecting the integrity of the sport by giving Bayern a pass for his start in the Breeders Cup Classic.

Well perhaps the timing of the two statements was not quite that proximate, but it’s comforting to know everything the CHRB does protects the integrity of the sport, even when it arguably didn’t protect the integrity of sport in the BC Classic. It reminded me of the famous “safety clause” that the Colorado legislature used to stick at the end of every bill. The safety clause stated that the prospective new law was “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.” The beauty was that they didn’t have to prove it, they just needed to add the clause to the end of a bill. This innocent sounding language Constitutionally prevented any law containing that phrase from being petitioned by the people for referendum. Without that language a few signatures could have had the public undoing legislation left and right. Pretty slick, eh?

And trust me. There were plenty of bills where protecting peace, health or safety was a stretch. They still use the language, just not every time.

Jockeys whip horses for various reasons: to control the horse (given the jockeys’ position in the saddle they can’t really use their legs to control the horse), to get the horse to change leads, or to inspire the horse to give a maximum effort. Anyone who has been around horses knows that many of them will not extend themselves without…reinforcement from the whip. Many trainers and jockeys believe that when a horse feels a sting in its rump it will run faster to get away from it. Eventually it becomes a conditioned response. The horse gets the whip and understands it is now time to run. It doesn’t work for every horse, but it certainly works often enough that owners, trainers and jockeys don’t want to completely remove it from the toolbox. One other critical point. Anyone who knows horses also knows that if the horse was being injured by the whip, it would react with fear when seeing a jockey approach, and would show clear signs of stress after a race. Animal rights people, on the other hand, are against whipping a horse under all circumstances because….well because it sounds cruel. For Winner to suggest this was an important issue was to imply many jockeys were often whaling away indiscriminantly on their mounts and injuring them, since if it was just a few scofflaws riding at the margins the rule change would have been of small consequence.

It’s too bad this wasn’t a rule when I was growing up and I could have told my father a fine would have been in order if he spanked me more than three times without taking a pause.  Like THAT would have made it more tolerable.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, the three whip rule is more perceptive than substantive, especially considering the punishment for exceeding the protocol is most likely not going to be more than a fine. Rather than hyperbolic statements about protecting the integrity of racing, I suspect the truth was closer to, we need to get the animal  rights people to back off and this is an easy compromise. It cetainly didn’t appear to be a wave of complaints from the people paying the bills – the bettors. Organized thoroughbred horseracing has been going on for hundreds of years. I haven’t come across studies showing horses were being injured by the whip to the point it was requiring serious treatment or interferring with their ability to run, especially considering the modern riding crop is designed more to slap than to cut. If you’ve ever stood at the rail as the horses approach the wire, you know there is a distinctive and loud popping sound, but as I said above we don’t see a fear or stress reaction from the horse. Jockeys will very occasionally mishit the horse causing it to jump away, but that is not a regular occurrence. In reality there may be the slightest sting that lasts briefly, but there is not an acute pain associated with the crop. Most jockeys with any skill know when whipping the horse is getting a response. They also know when whipping the horse will cause it to sulk. To suggest jockeys were behaving otherwise was a not so subtle slap at the Guild.

Which brings me to the reason I thought this topic was timely. The ride Martin Garcia gave Dortmund in the Hollywood Futurity at Los Alamitos. Garcia gave Dortmund a strong left-hand whip entering the stretch and the went to a vigorous hand ride in the early part of the stretch, giving him an occasional whack on the shoulder to inspire him. Dortmund was apparently not giving Garcia the desired response because inside the 16th the horse still had about three quarters of a length to make up. At that point Garcia appeared to start rapidly hitting Dortmund on the shoulder and once he started getting to the front two made sure to show him the whip. It was a little hard to tell exactly from the pan shot because it is easy to misperceive hitting the shoulder for showing the horse the whip, but it certainly looked to me like Garcia hit Dortmund a few more than three times without pausing..

The message after watching Garcia seemed to be clear. Regardless of the three whip rule, when a horse needs to make up ground in a Graded race the jockey will do whatever seems to be working to get him there. There was somewhere around $30,000 on the line for Garcia and no fine the stewards might levy was going to keep him from riding the hell out of the horse. If the “riding crop” felt like it was going to get Dortmund or any horse over the top, no top jockey would have given it a second thought. And no jockey would be willing to go back to the barn and tell the trainer, I thought the whip was working and I wanted to keep it going but you know, that three whip rule sort of discouraged me.

This rule is not the armageddon for racing and it is not a completely harebrained idea – in fact, it is unlikely to have an outrageous impact on race results – but the jockey has one overriding responsibility – get the most out of the horse that he can. He owes that to the owners and the bettors. THAT is what the integrity of racing is all about. For hundreds of years jockeys learned that the whip was part of that. No doubt there were jockeys who garnered a reputation for the an overenthusiastic use of the whip. Ted Atkinson was known as “the Slasher” and Jorge Chavez was given the nickname “Chop-Chop,” in part because of their aggressive use of the whip. Since both jockeys were very successful, trainers and bettors rarely complained. This generation of jockeys has to unlearn years of developing a winning style, and frankly it will be an uphill struggle for a few years at least. The next generation of jockeys may fully embrace the rule and bettors may ultimately adjust, but in the meantime you can expect to see more rides like Garcia on Dortmund when the jockey reverts to training and instinct.