My youngest spent a fleeting minute enjoying quality time with me on Saturday afternoon, in front of Channel 4 Racing of course, before finding a piece of fluff on the floor more interesting and disappearing with that look on his face (that I shall no doubt see with increasing frequency over his adolescent years) that said ‘I just don’t understand my father’. His one observation of the finish that he witnessed was “Isn’t it cruel? The way they hit them?”
I put on my wise, fatherly tone and trailed out the usual justifications of “it doesn’t hurt them” and “they’ve got thicker skins than us”. I believe those answers to be true, but even so I was reminded that my chosen sport is a niche one. My son has played football, rugby and many other sports and can relate to them, but has never ridden a horse. Horse racing has it tough, really. It has to attempt to attract new followers to a sport they know literally nothing about, and it is therefore not surprising that seeing horses hit with sticks seems odd, or even cruel.
The whip debate has been rumbling around with greater resonance for the last month after the King George on Boxing Day. When I reported on that fascinating race a few blogs back I made no reference to the whip – it really didn’t feature on my radar of a stirring finish between two brave horses, primarily because I felt that neither horse was abused. However, it featured on the radar of the two jockeys as both were given suspensions for breaking the rules. The winning rider, Paddy Brennan, used his whip 16 times on Cue Card – twice the permitted level, was banned for 11 days and given a £4,200 fine.
Yet some in recent weeks have argued that these penalties are not enough of a deterrent when a big race is on the line, and would favour disqualification as the only way of getting jockeys to comply. This would have seen Al Ferof, a distant third in the King George, awarded the race. The statistics (released this month by the BHA) concur that, whilst whip offences have halved in the last five years, bans have doubled in the top Group/Grade 1 races in the last 12 months.
The argument continues that “racing is the only sport where you can break the rules and win”, but I disagree. Many other sports contain winning teams or individuals that consistently bend, twist and, yes, break the rules. We do not retrospectively award cups or medals on the basis that a player committed a cynical foul or a team accumulated more yellow cards. Yes, horse racing has stewards and authorities with powers to change the result of a race, but excessive use of the whip is not the same as interference where one horse can drastically reduce the chances of another, or doping which is cynical and pre-meditated cheating. These are jockeys are who are steering tons of galloping horse-flesh in the constantly shifting landscape of a tight finish.
Here are some other arguments I’ve heard recently that I fundamentally disagree with:-
“Common sense has to apply if it’s just one or two strokes over the limit” – all that does is enhance the confusion and shift the goalposts. Eight strokes effectively become nine or ten. Whatever rules we have, they must be enforced. That’s not to say the punishment for nine strokes should be the same as nineteen, just that everyone needs to know where they stand.
“A two mile hurdle on good ground is different to a four mile chase on heavy” – undoubtedly true, but trying to introduce a tariff based on distance and going is surely over-complicating the matter. A different limit for flat and jumps races is sensible, but beyond that it becomes unfeasibly difficult to operate.
“We have to limit the number of strokes because of public appearance” – sure, racing has to try and appeal to the masses, but it also has a responsibility to be true to itself. Would naïve onlookers really be satisfied that a horse hit eight times is fine but a horse hit nine times is being abused?
“The number of whip bans in high-profile races is not painting a good picture” – again true, but this does not mean we should artificially restrict the bans but rather continue to adapt the behaviour that instigates them. If that means increasing the length of suspensions or the size of fines so be it, but I do not believe it should include disqualification of the horses.
If we end up in a place where we increase the limit purely to avoid the negative publicity of suspensions that really will be the tail wagging the dog, or the whip waving the jockey. Flouting of the rules is not common, and abuse of racehorses is virtually non-existent, but there still has to be a line where we say enough is enough. So wherever that line is, please let it be defined by what is right in the interests of horse welfare rather than public perception.
On a lighter note, the votes of our rather unscientific poll are in and prove for interesting reading on who you think will win the Gold Cup:-
Cue Card 23%
Don Cossack 19%
Road To Riches 8%
Don Poli 8%
The surprising dark horse in the list is ante-post favourite, and last year’s runner-up, Djakadam. He reappears on Saturday at Cheltenham and, whilst expected to win comfortably, will add another piece of the jigsaw to the increasingly intricate picture of the 2016 Festival showpiece. Only seven weeks to go…..