Striking a Balance: Use of the Whip in Horse Racing
A growing spotlight has been given to the use of whips in races, as tracks and state racing commissions have grappled with their use as encouragement versus the growing negative public perception toward their use.
Striking that balance has been a point of contention between fans, regulators, jockeys, and trainers, and its biggest battleground to date has been in New Jersey. Last year, the state’s racing commission announced that it would prohibit jockeys from using the crop in races, outside of necessary control for the safety of the horse or rider, during Monmouth Park’s 2021 meet.
The announcement was immediately polarizing, with several prominent jockeys announcing they’d boycott the meet, including a rider so synonymous with Monmouth Park that it’s in his nickname: “Jersey” Joe Bravo.
The Monmouth Park meet closed at the end of September, giving America the biggest data set it’s seen for the safety and effectiveness of whipless racing, but our arrival to that point was decades in the making.
Whip regulations are still a fairly new development in the U.S., aside from basic rules against blatant abuse of the horses and other riders. For those looking for a preview on how the battles and compromises might play out in the long term, Europe offers several examples.
The lead other European nations have followed when setting their own whip restrictions has been Norway, which first enacted a total whip ban in 1986. After pushback from the country’s horsemen, the country allowed riders to carry a small crop, only to be used for safety purposes, not encouragement. In 2009, the rule was adjusted again, allowing jockeys to carry whips only in 2-year-old flat races and steeplechase races.
Norway’s initial foray into whip-free racing was a guiding factor in England’s decision to enact its own restrictions in the late 1980s.
Public concern about whip use had entered the national conversation in England, and in 1988, the British Jockey Club enacted a rule handing jockeys a two-to four-day suspension for misuse or overuse of the whip, with an ensuing violation resulting in up to two weeks on the sidelines. Any jockey that was found by stewards to strike the horse more than 10 times, or that left marks on the horse, was subject to investigation.
It was a drastic raising of the ante by regulators after violators previously received fines, and British jockeys reportedly responded by refusing to speak to the media, even though the British Jockey Club claimed the rules were made after detailed consultations with the country’s riders. Steve Cauthen, a Triple Crown-winning jockey in the U.S. who later moved his tack overseas, later came out as one of the rule’s more vocal opponents after multiple suspensions.
The rules were tightened in 1993, when British riders were limited to five strikes, keeping the whip below shoulder height, and aimed at specifically allowed targets on the horse.
The country’s jockeys and trainers were much more vocal to the media this time around, repeatedly demanding review of the rule before and after its enactment, and presenting a series of “what-if” scenarios of past races that might have seen different winners under the new provisions.
“We realize public opinion has to be taken into account, but it would cut out one of the many skills of jockeyship,” jockey Richard Dunwoody told the Racing Post in 1993, reflecting a familiar refrain heard by today’s American riders. “We don’t cause pain to horses, and the vets can’t prove that we do.”
No other major jurisdiction had taken such a hard stance against whip use. Neighboring Ireland had restrictions on where a rider could strike the horse, but there was no firm number on strikes. Meanwhile, England’s whip rules were the source of an occasional curious newspaper column in the U.S., where local riders defended its use, but no state or national jurisdiction enforced anything beyond outright savagery.
The rule faced a crossroads in 1996, when the riders of the top three finishers in the 2,000 Guineas received suspensions for whip violations, as did the top two finishers in the St. Leger. Frankie Dettori was involved in both races, and received a total of 10 days for both incidents.
A year later, the five-strike limit was lifted, and the decision to rule on improper whip use was left up to the stewards’ discretion. Whip offenses were cut in half from the first half of 1996 to the same span of time in 1997. The decision received widespread praise from jockeys and trainers.
In the decades that followed, the British Horseracing Authority has tinkered with the country’s whip policies, even going back to a seven-strike limit in 2011, and a five-strike limit inside the final furlong. The final-furlong provision was scrapped when the riders threatened to strike, but the seven-strike rule still stands in England today.
Whip reform has come much more gradually stateside. The first wave in the first decade of the 2000s focused on the types of crops used, with the Association of Racing Commissioners International adopting a model rule in 2009 giving specifics on the length and weight allowed for a rider’s whip.
While the RCI had its model rules, change has come in America on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.
The same year, American auction houses adopted a uniform policy for use of the crop during 2-year-olds-in-training under-tack shows, barring use within an eighth of the mile of the finish line and beyond the wire, as well as restricting where and how riders could strike the horse. The rules received an update in 2020, limiting pre-breeze strikes and further governing when and how a whip can be used within the breeze.
A variety of crops were developed in the 2000s claiming to reduce the amount of marks given to a horse when they are whipped, and pilot programs were launched around the country to test them in real-life situations. Softer whips, relying more on the sound they create rather than the contact itself, were mandated at tracks including Del Mar, Saratoga, Delaware Park, Philadelphia Park, and Woodbine. Even so, North American racing never came to a consensus on a model whip.
The first numerical restriction on whip usage in North America came in 2009, when Ontario released a sweeping policy that included a limit of three strikes in a row without giving the horse time to respond. The following decade saw others follow on the other side of the border.
California was the first American jurisdiction to put a number on its whip rule, with the current limit being six strikes in a race, and two before giving the horse a chance to respond.
Prior to New Jersey’s turn in the spotlight, California was considered the epicenter of the whip debate, furthered in 2019 when the California Horse Racing Board unanimously voted to limit whip use to safety only. The plan was quickly snuffed out, and riders around the country went on the record bristling at the idea of the whip being taken away.
Later that year, The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee called for the end of the whip as an encouragement tool, citing consumer research that whip use was a concern among both current and potential racing fans. The Jockey’s Guild rebuffed the Jockey Club’s stance, and filed an unsuccessful appeal to stop the New Jersey whip ban before the beginning of the Monmouth Park meet.
“While the Guild and its members are supportive of any changes that improve the well-being of the horse, we do believe that it is important to recognize that use of the riding crop is still necessary, not only for safety, but also for communication, control of the horse, and assurance of maximum placing,” a Jockey’s Guild release read. “This cannot be emphasized enough.”
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission adopted its own whip rule in May 2021, following discussions with the Jockey’s Guild, limiting overhand strikes to six throughout the race, and two before response. Underhanded or backhanded use of the whip may begin in the final three-eighths of a mile, and do not count toward the six-strike limit. Violators would receive a $500 minimum fine or a three-day minimum suspension, which could grow with aggravating factors.
Gulfstream Park adopted a similar house rule in August.
Whip rules around the country and around the world remain a work in progress. After more than three decades, England is still adjusting its policy to meet the growing demand to abolish crop use while appeasing the people working directly with the horses. Using that as past performance, a lasting, uniform policy in the U.S. is likely a long way off, if it ever arrives at all.
With that being said, the speed of reform has gained momentum with each passing year. Even if there is not a final answer on the immediate horizon, it appears several jurisdictions will continue trying to get closer to it.