Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By Stephen Dwyer
The weather in 1974 was truly woeful. 200 km/h winds were recorded in Co. Down and there was a sparse harvest later in the year. The agricultural industry was on its knees, the cattle market had collapsed and buyers for livestock could not be found. There were stories that farmers would have to lock their trailer at the mart or they might come out and find that someone had dumped a few calves in your trailer while you were inside.
This is an example of a real problem facing an industry. The much-maligned question over the use of the whip in horse racing is not. The issue of the whip in racing has surfaced following this year’s Aintree Grand National which won by Ballabriggs. The horse’s jockey, Jason Maguire was banned for five days after the race for “excessive use” of the whip. Acres of column inches and hundreds hours of interviews have been dedicated to this debate over the past month. At this stage, it must be said that there really is no room for argument, the whip stays.
Only last week a prominent animal rights campaigner wrote in a national newspaper that the whip used in horse racing is a “medieval-style flogging instrument”. At best, this statement is downright disinformation, at worst; it is shallow sensationalism. If you examine a modern day whip, it is not a cat o' nine tails; you will understand that is merely a “persuader” as Ted Walsh rightly describes it.
Visit any tack shop and you will find that a riding whip costs about €50. The “flogging instrument” weighs less than 160 grams, the same as a wheel pump attached to a mountain bike. It certainly does not resemble any type of torture implement. It has a leather handle and the rules of racing state the whip must not exceed 70cm in length. The whip is heavily padded and features throughout a shock-absorbing material which helps to protect horses from injury or discomfort. The notion that jockeys relentlessly beat a horse with an Indiana-Jones style bullwhip is nonsensical and untrue. The specification of modern-day whips has been set in place following on-going consultation with animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA.
These featherweight instruments are used for safety, correction and encouragement, nothing more. And they don’t work all of the time. When Denman ran in the Punchestown Gold Cup last year, he simply didn’t want to know about it. Punchestown is a right-handed track, Denman prefers left. The greatest jockey of all time tried to cajole him around Punchestown but not even Tony McCoy or his whip could encourage Denman. He just said no.
A horse’s skin is a quarter of an inch thick in places, over twice that of a human. Horses are hardy animals; yes they have delicate areas, weak points, like any animal. Even the mighty elephant has a weak neck joint, their Achilles heel. But horses cannot be reasoned with; the very rules of racing dictate that a jockey is required to carry a whip. Sometimes a young colt will need to be kept up to his work to run straight and there are very distinct rules in place about using the whip, designed to protect horse and rider.
Jockeys cannot hit horses with their whip above shoulder height, they cannot use excessive force and they cannot whip horses who are either clearly winning or out of contention. There are a plethora of terms and conditions in place when a jockey attaches a whip to their wrist with a thick rubber band.
In an era where media coverage is so prevalent, slow motion TV shots of jockeys using their whips on horses looks worse than it is. The reality is that jockeys have trouble using their whips in high winds and will gladly demonstrate to you how little discomfort the whip emits. This fact has not stopped some quarters from taking excessive measures and in England, Towcester racecourse had planned to ban jockeys from using the whip in races at the track. This decision was overruled by the British Horseracing Authority.
It is said in racing circles that proper use of the whip is an art form; Lester Piggott spent countless hours practicing on a wooden saddle horse with a pair of reins and a whip. As much as a golfer practises a shot over and over, so too does a jockey, refining the hold on the whip until it becomes subconscious.
There are bigger fish to fry in the world of horse racing than the whip rule.
It’s time to move on.