Campbell: Give New Jersey Riding Crop Reform A Chance

When it comes to the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) and their restrictive riding crop rules at Monmouth Park, horse people, jockeys, owners, bettors, turf writers, and anyone remotely interested in the future of this great sport needs to be supportive of what they are doing. Furthermore, let’s give executive director Judith Nason, the benefit of the doubt that she and the commissioners on the regulatory agency are dutifully representing the varied interests of everyone involved. In other words, allow them at least a chance to succeed or fail.

Last week, in the wake of a pair of jockey suspensions at Monmouth for use of the riding crop during two different races, Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick stated in a tweet that the ruling against Carlos Montalvo suggests that there are no exceptions to the “safety only” crop rule. He went on to say that jockeys in the state may as well “leave their whips at home.” Though he is a longtime advocate for whip reform, I respectfully disagree with Paulick’s assertion because it implies that the NJRC has no flexibility when it comes to interpreting their own rules. They do. This is, in the opinion of this turf writer, too critical. Here’s why.

Almost immediately, most who have viewed Race 1 on July 11 sought to offer their own perspective concerning Montalvo’s mount, M I Six. The story expanded quickly, as it was entered into the jockey’s testimony in front of the NJRC board of stewards. According to eyewitnesses, the longshot gelding was “uncontrollable” and about “to bolt,” even on his way to the starting gate. The jockey can be seen whipping M I Six down the backstretch, in what he viewed as necessary to defusing danger. The stewards begged to differ, deciding that Montalvo had violated the whip rule. His fate was a five-day suspension that begins in late August, plus a $500 fine. His attorney said they are planning an appeal.

Whatever you think was proper and just about that decision or not, herein lies the issue when it comes to opinions like these: let’s leave the adjudicating to the professionals. In this case, it’s the NJRC, tasked by the attorney general’s office. to oversee the sport, that made the progressive decision to institute the most radical and wide-spread change in American racing history. They didn’t do it on a whim, and their outline for its implementation can be found clearly on its website (https://www.nj.gov/oag/racing/rulemaking/Riding_Crop%20Proposal.pdf). Executive director Nason is a seasoned veteran, and an attorney, who cut her teeth in the legal avenues of New Jersey politics. She is in charge of a monumental task that is at hand. Some latitude needs to be given.

Sure, more specifics would be beneficial, as no one would dare say, “No thank you” to that. But the business that stewards and rule-makers engage in implies a certain closed-door mentality. Despite the public office, this is especially true when you are hammering out a revolutionary set of policies that are quite possibly going to be wildly unpopular. In N.J.A.C. 13:70-11.12(a), the commission is clearly attempting to be thoughtful when it comes to changing the culture of riding crop use, stating that “jockeys and exercise riders will need to encourage horses by means that do not involve actual or perceived harm to the horse.” That word “perceived” is absolutely key. Use of the riding crop to encourage a horse to run faster, according to them, “is no longer in the best interests of the sport.” This isn’t just about “safety only,” it’s also about change. And change is hard.

Speaking of tough moments, Monmouth Park and the NJRC were given a true test of its rules on what is without question its greatest moment — Haskell Day. Everyone held their collective breath when Paco Lopez went down after his mount, Midnight Bourbon, stumbled badly after clipping heels with Hot Rod Charlie in mid-stretch. Conjecture, spun and spun, with many asking: Would the whip have helped?  We will never know because jockey Flavien Prat aboard Hot Rod Charlie did not choose to apply it, and to make some sort of judgment either way is pure speculation. It is in the hands of the NJRC, as they plan to hold a hearing, which is part of their process.

Again, let’s allow that to play out, too. Though no jockey or horse was seriously hurt, praise be, it is just another example of how dangerous this sport truly can be. Whip or no whip, accidents happen on a racetrack. But there is much more to the story than just that. It is insanely more complex.

Recall, there is no precedent for this rollout: no guidebook, no primer. The NJRC, led by Nason, is attempting to do something important – bring Thoroughbred racing into a new era. That is no small task on a case-by-case basis, and the NJRC certainly has a network of interests to please. Don’t forget that, either.

During the NJRC’s July meeting last week, Dennis Drazin, the chairman and CEO of Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park, asked Nason for clarification concerning what constituted a “dangerous situation.” That’s not a poor ask, but this is a question of empowerment. The NJRC holds it, make no mistake, and letting the unfolding of explanations, appeals, and changes over time play out is a necessary part of this evolution.

This isn’t a “safety only” crop rule; rather, it is meant to revolutionize a sport that, by the way, has an image problem when it comes to the public’s imagination. As for Flavien Prat, his fate lies in the hands of the stewards, as it should. These are the trials that are necessary when we are talking about something that is overdue, like crop reform. Safety is not all that is at stake, as perception is also present. That is why the whips cannot be left at home, and the reason why all of us need to back NJRC. Give them some room, then we can be more critical.

J.N. Campbell is a turf writer with Gaming USA. His work can be found at www.horseracing.net/us.

The post Campbell: Give New Jersey Riding Crop Reform A Chance appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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