Whips In U.S. Horse Racing: Panel Speaks Out On Tough Topic

New York State Gaming Commission brought a broad group together to air concerns surrounding if and when it's OK to whip horses in races.
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One of the biggest complaints in the American horse racing industry about efforts to limit or ban riding crops has been a lack of input from the relevant stakeholders.

The New York State Gaming Commission attempted to address that concern by convening a remote panel last week that included Hall of Fame jockeys John Velasquez and Mike Smith as co-chairmen of the Jockeys’ Guild; The Jockey Club officials; Will Alempijevic, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association;  Martin Panza,  senior vice president of Racing Operations at the New York Racing Association; Churchill Downs executive Mike Ziegler; The Breeders’ Cup CEO Drew Fleming; Stronach Group CEO Craig Fravel; and New York State stewards.

Smith, who two years ago rode Justify to thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, has been in the news of late as sharply critical of California’s three-week-old riding crop limitations that he said are “ruining our sport.”

He added to those comments before the New York commission, first outlining the reasons a riding crop is used.

“At any point in a race, every step can be a dangerous step when you’re riding a horse. If they know that you don’t have a riding crop or if you’re not able to use it properly or the way you’re supposed to use it, a horse will figure that out so fast, and it’ll literally do whatever it wants to do,” Smith said.

“I know we have the reins and people say, ‘Well, use the reins,’ but let me tell you something: Try pulling on a horse that weighs 1,200 pounds, and if it ain’t working, all you have next is the riding crop.  If you take that away, trust me, the game becomes twice as dangerous, if not more.”

What’s on a racehorse’s mind?

Smith, who said that New York officials “got it right” with what he described as more reasonable limitations, made headlines in February when he was fined more than $200,000 for purported excessive use of a whip at a prestigious race in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Velasquez offered an intriguing look into what he said are the minds of racehorses.

“Most horses will not be competitive if you don’t use [the crop] for encouragement. Most horses are willing to stay right next to the horse, and not pass the horse, because that’s in the very nature of the horses.

“So, if you don’t ask a horse to do something, they’re not going to give you anything. For the most part, I’d say 85 to 90 percent of the horses need to be encouraged because, otherwise, they’re not going to do any running at all.”

Smith elaborated: “Most horses would rather just stay together; they’re herd animals. Very seldom, you’ll see one that just runs off away from the group.”

All that said, the panelists from across the spectrum acknowledged that there is a difficult balance in limiting use of the crop: Animal rights activists want it banned, while the railbird with $100 on a contender likely wants his horse to be pushed to the maximum.

The bettors’ role in the whip debate

Smith: “It is a betting sport, on top of everything else, and you’re supposed to keep the integrity of the sport. It wasn’t too long ago that if you didn’t encourage one, you would get ruled off or fined for life if you weren’t encouraging a horse.

“Now, all of a sudden, we’re not supposed to encourage them. Well, how are you supposed to win a race when you’re coming from last and your horse is happy staying last? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Fravel, from the Stronach Group, replied.

“I don’t think that we should concede that simply changing rules is going to destroy the gambling aspect of things,” he said. “We heard those arguments when we were discussing the modification of medication rules, whether it was steroids, or corticosteroids, or Lasix, and I think the gambling public continues to respond positively to our sport.”

Asked to provide an example of a horse that needed a lot of “encouragement,” Smith pointed to Giacomo, his 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, who came from dead last in a fierce rally.

“In no way or manner did I abuse that horse; he didn’t have a mark on him when he came back,” Smith said “With the riding crops we have nowadays, you won’t see a mark. Period.”

Smith also pointed to his legendary mare and Breeders’ Cup champion Zenyatta as a horse who “half the time, she would only win by a head or a nose” because she was “happy running with the group.”

Smith added that he supports severe penalties for excessive use of the whip when a horse is out of contention.

50 states, one whip rule?

Panza, the NYRA executive, said that a number of officials from the country’s leading racetracks convened last fall to address a big gripe of horsemen — the difference in riding crop rules from state to state.

“I think we were very close to a deal with the [Jockey] Guild in January, and we doing follow-up meetings and COVID hit [in March].

“We want to keep the safety issue, but we also need to start to protect the perception of our sport and the integrity of our sport. And whether we like it in New York or not, we’re probably going to have to do something or, publicly, we’re going to get attacked.”

New Jersey regulators took heat last month after passage of some of the strictest riding crop rules in the country, which initially didn’t allow jockeys to carry the whip at all.

Jim Gagliano, a member of The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee, said that all horsemen must address changing public attitudes.

“To me and to The Jockey Club, we see a future where hitting an animal with a stick won’t be acceptable, certainly not for urging,” Gagliano said.

“We recognize that these are difficult things to change — it’s going to take a while — but I’d submit that kind of like the sports bubbles we hear about, perhaps we’re in our own bubble, too. And I think if we want to grow the sport, we have to look out and engage perception. And, in my view, it’s one of the increasing intolerance of things such as hitting an animal with a stick for urging.”

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