Whipping Up A Storm

Around a quarter of people in Britain believe that the use of animals in any sport is unacceptable although only 14% believe that horseracing should be banned altogether. With the growing influence of animal welfare groups over the last fifty years and the cultural change in the public’s attitude towards animal rights generally, public opposition to the use of the whip in racing has grown. But how many people really understand what the whip it is used for, and how many of them know what the regulations concerning its use actually are?

In a survey taken for the British Horseracing Authority recent Whip Review, 57% of people when asked for their views on the use of the whip responded that they strongly or somewhat agreed it should be banned completely, with women significantly more likely than men to say this (68% vs 45%). The same research found that there was a lot of misunderstanding about why and when the whip is allowed. Significantly, after explanation of why the whip is used and the pain free nature of its design, this dropped from 57% by almost a quarter to 33%.

The report looked carefully at the underlying principles of the use of the whip, how it is used, and how its use could be controlled still further. The Review Group consulted not only the major sport's bodies – National Trainers Federation, Professional Jockeys Association, Racehorse Owners Association, Amateur Jockeys Association, the Racecourse Association, the British Racing School and Northern Racing College – but also with recognised animal welfare bodies – the RSPCA, SSPCA and World Horse Welfare.

Professor Tim Morris of the BHA told the BBC: “Animal rights groups are claiming the whip is cruel but that's a different matter because they are against racing. We believe excessive use (of the whip) is not only wrong but counter-productive.” So there’s recognition within the sport that how the whip is used is an important issue. As Andrew Merriam, chair of the BHA’s review group states in the report: “Animal welfare is important at every level of British Horseracing. As the regulator of the sport in Great Britain, the British Horseracing Authority works hard to ensure racing’s continued health and successful development. The safety and welfare of horses and their riders is central to this.”

The rules, implemented last year after the BHA’s findings, were brought in following the death of two horses at the 2011 Grand National which attracted widespread criticism. The maximum number of strokes allowed was reduced by almost half to seven strokes in Flat races, eight over jumps, and only five strokes were allowed after the last obstacle or in the final furlong. Alongside this, if a rider was handed a suspension of three days or more by stewards for a whip violation, a financial penalty was automatically triggered. To ensure that this was upheld it was also made an offence for any owner or trainer to reimburse their rider from their own winnings.

For a jockey the whip is a vital tool and it plays a legitimate role in Racing. With good design and clear controls on use, it does not compromise the welfare of the horse during a race. Broadly speaking, the whip is used either for the safety of both the jockey and horse, or to encourage the horse to perform to its best when in contention, allowing the jockey increased control of the horse. As Tim Morris of the BHA told the BBC: “If you are on a half-tonne of horse going at nearly 40mph over a jump and there are 20 other horses around you, you need a tool to steer, correct its stride, and balance a horse.”

The report, and the new rules which followed, set the horseracing world into turmoil. Jockeys, trainers and owners were split with many finding them unacceptable. In a meeting between the BHA, the Professional Jockey's Association and the National Trainers' Federation last year the BHA commented: “We identified areas of common ground, including the need for greater use of discretion by stewards. It might include developing incentives for riders who do not breach the rules over a set period or number of rides.”

Speaking on behalf of the jockeys, PJA chief executive, Kevin Darley, said that the meeting was: “both positive and constructive” but went on to say: “A major issue for us is that stewards should be allowed to use their discretion when judging the ride of a jockey.” He continued: “We are concerned that the penalties imposed on jockeys should be more proportionate. Jockeys also remain unhappy about the deduction of prize money.”

On the other hand many leading jockeys and trainers welcomed the changes at the time. Fourteen-time classic winner Frankie Dettori said: “I accept these new rules are in the best interest of our great sport.”

Paul Nicholls, champion jumps trainer, said: “While I've been a critic of the rules in the past, nobody likes seeing misuse of the whip and I agree the time had come when something had to be done. I am pleased the BHA has made sensible and reasonable changes, and I am supportive of them.”

Tony McCoy, champion jumps jockey and controversial winner of the 2010 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, said: “The PJA has worked closely with the Authority on the BHA's review and I hope my colleagues embrace the proposed changes as being in the best interest of the sport.”

In one well publicised case Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon lost £50,000 in prize money and was given a five-day ban for flouting the whip rules after striking his mount six times in the final furlong and going on to win the £1.3m Champion Stakes on Cirrus Des Aigles at Champions Day. In October 2011, the BHA agreed to make still more changes to the rules after ongoing debate about penalties.

The outcome was that flat riders may now use their seven permitted strikes at any point in a race, while jump jockeys may use eight, and the five stroke restriction (which Christophe Soumillon fell foul of) in Flat racing's final furlong and after the final hurdle in National Hunt have been lifted. Jockeys will also now not lose riding fees if suspended for whip offences and will only forfeit their percentage of prize money if banned for seven days or more.

Some riders are still unhappy with the new penalties, but PJA chief executive Kevin Darley said: “The PJA is advising its members to work within the rules. We are not happy with aspects of those rules, but we will work with the BHA on the issues that concern us.”

It seems that the controversy continues.