4 September 2009

ABC Unleashed: Whip it Good!

As the Spring Racing Carnival begins in earnest this weekend, Michael Hutak says new rules restricting how jockey's whip their horses are causing controversy.
Outside Melbourne Cup time, Australia's multi-billion dollar horse racing industry usually attracts the attention of the wider general public for all the wrong reasons: betting scams, race fixing, money laundering, "colourful" racing identities, horse doping and claims of animal cruelty are the typical narratives.
However, 2009 has been a year for rougher-than-usual hand-wringing for racing's bosses, faced with a public outcry over horse fatalities in jumps racing, the disturbing re-emergence of positive swabs for performance-enhancing drugs, cyber-attacks from the Russian mafia on Australia's booming online betting shops, and, taking centre stage at the moment, sweeping changes to the rules regarding the use of the whip in races.
The grand irony to all this negative publicity is that the racing game loves nothing more than a public row, and that's exactly what it's got following the introduction of the new whip regime at the start of the new season on August 1.
Racing NSW Chief Steward, Ray Murrihy, explained the new rules to the ABC: "Up to the last 200 metres they can only hit a horse 5 times. You can't lift your arm up above your head. (We have had certain jockeys who use to use the whip as if they were chopping a log with an axe.)
In the last 200m, you have to give the horse an opportunity to respond. You can't hit it every stride, but only every second stride, and on one occasion in the last 200m you can hit three strides in a row."
The cause célèbre came on August 22, when Sydney apprentice Daniel Ganderton was fined his riding fee and winning prizemoney percentage (about $4000 in all) and suspended for six race meetings after his winning the Group 3 Silver Shadow Stakes at Randwick on a three-year-old called Deer Valley.
Ganderton flouted the new restrictions, riding his mount with the whip right to the line, to win the race over another rival which was ridden within the new rules. Ganderton told stewards the horse wouldn't have won without the extra pressure, however, while the jockey copped the punishment, his mount kept the race, prompting calls of foul from punters and owners.
The Silver Shadow being a coveted event, the "winner" was now a much more valuable stud proposition, while the owners of the runner-up got zilch.
Even Murrihy admits that had the Silver Shadow been run on July 31, there would have been no fine, reprimand or suspension for Ganderton. "No, none at all. Wouldn't have contemplated it."
Jockeys, and high-profile owners and trainers have since gone ballistic, threatening what amounts to the turf equivalent of civil disobedience. "I'll be doing everything I can to win" said leading jockey Peter Robl. "And if that means hitting more than the allowable three strides in succession, then I'll be doing it. You won't find any other rider that won't do it in a million-dollar race when you are neck and neck with other horses."
Adman and racehorse owner, John Singleton, chimed in with advice to jockeys not to "worry about your fine, I'll pay you double the fee, just win the race". Big-time bookie, Robbie Waterhouse complained it was hitting his hip pocket: "Everyone is talking about not wanting to bet unless they see horses ridden out with the whip. I think it is starting to have an effect on betting turnover."
His wife, leading trainer Gai Waterhouse, dismissed the new restrictions as the unwanted handiwork of "do-gooders". Others bizarrely claimed it was all the fault of meddling "greenies".
While such carefree commentary is refreshing in an an age when sportspeople clog up the tube with banalities and platitudes, Robl claimed he'd been "misquoted" when pressed by stewards and said he would comply with the new rules.
The stewards then warned trainers and owners that it was an offence under the Australian Rules of Racing "if instructions are given or inducements are offered by any person that might result in a rider breaching the whip rules".
It may be an offence but enforcement is the issue. The jockeys also claim the new rules "are putting the health and safety of riders at risk", while they count how many times they've hit the horse instead of concentrating on riding naturally. Murrihy counters: "There's been markedly less interference in races. We haven't had a suspension for careless riding in the last 200m since the whip rule started."
It's not like the jockeys didn't know what was coming; the changes were announced in March after a wide ranging public inquiry conducted by the Australian Racing Board, taking submissions from both racing industry insiders, horse and animal welfare groups and the general public. They've had six months to prepare. Now they want the rules changed to allow them unfettered discretion to use the whip in the last 100 metres. The Australian Racing Board will hear their case next Thursday.
It's true that Sydney jockey Blake Shinn would have almost certainly lost last year's Melbourne Cup on Viewed had he ridden to the letter of the new rules.
By my count he hit the Bart Cummings-trained gelding 26 times in the last 200m. A rule punishing jockeys for excessive or improper use of the whip has been in place for more than two decades, however it was rarely enforced and never in living memory when horses are fighting out a tight finish.
"Historically, as long as horses were in contention for a placing, stewards were very reluctant to deem any riding excessive," admits Murrihy. "You could have had two horses fighting out a finish being hit 40 or 50 times with the whip. Now I don't recall ever in my career stewards penalising riders for being excessive when a placing was in contest. These new rules are designed to bring Australia in line with most other countries and with community standards that find it a bit abhorrent that a horse can be hit 40 or 50 times with the whip."
The new regime is more in line with South African rules which came into effect on January 1. In the UK, where animal welfare groups have been very successful in targeting abuses in horse racing, the whip is used very sparingly, and Murrihy says "it's fair to say now around the world the very best riders use a lot less whip".
Australian jockeys historically have an international reputation for being very tough on the animal and that strong whip riding was an accepted practice. Murrihy says people would be outraged today at the style of three-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Jim Johnson, last week inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
Australia now is only playing catch-up and many of today's best riders such as Kerrin McEvoy, Damien Oliver, Corey Brown, use much less whip to great effect. The modern jockey is more athletic, with more upper body strength and a propensity to put the whip away in the closing stages and really push their horses to the line.
It's generally accepted that the best "hands and heels" rider in the modern era was Peter Cook, who rode from the 60s to the 80s. Cook was a quiet, kind rider who could get the best out of a horse without the whip and who seldom resorted to it even in the tightest finish.
However punters, if one were to treat them as an undifferentiated mass, still want to see the jockey win at all costs, ideally with a whip in each hand with every last ounce extracted from the animal in a tight finish. To most, the whip is the accelerator.
Murrihy says ultimately it's counterproductive. "If you belt a horse hoping to instil a fear of the whip, chances are you'll make it into a dog. It won't respond to the whip, it gets sick of getting a hiding, it lays down and won't do its best."
The other innovation in force since August 1 is the exclusive use of a "less severe", padded whip which has a bark worse than its bite. Critics point out, if you're hitting horse with a whip and it supposedly doesn't hurt, then why restrict its use at all? Murrihy says the new whip is more accurately described as "a kinder whip, not that it doesn't hurt.
There's a general abhorrence to belting animals with anything, so if you simply say I'll give you a whip that doesn't hurt as much and you can hit it 40 times in the straight with this, I don't know that gets you over the welfare hurdle!"
Lou Reed used to sing about the whip "in love, not given lightly", and PETA believes the whip should be restricted to consenting adults only. However the whip is part and parcel of the relationship between human and the domesticated horse, a bond of master and slave stretching to pre-history.
In the equestrian world eventing and dressage, there are rules prohibiting and penalties applicable for excessive use of the whip. So it should stay in racing, and it will.
New rules in the racing game are always met with resistance by vested interests. When the administering of steroids for racehorses was banned in the early 1990s, many trainers claimed it would be the end of racing as we knew it. For some it nearly was: one leading Sydney trainer didn't train a winner for four months after the ban came into force.
In fact predictions of turf Armageddon have been the rote response when, for instance, whenever a "foreign" horse won the Melbourne Cup, when mobile phones were allowed on racecourses, when the TAB was first introduced and then when it was privatised, when the AJC Derby was moved from the Spring to the Autumn, when female jockeys were first given licences, when Robbie Waterhouse was banned over Fine Cotton and 17 years later when he was allowed back on the track, when cable TV broadcasts of the races began, when betting exchanges were allowed to operate, when night racing started - every change has been met with claims of falling sky.
All I can say is, as a journalist, it sure makes great copy.

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