Letter To The Editor: The Place Of The Whip In Horse Racing

The whip in horse racing:

Reading this letter, one is entitled to ask: ‘Who are you, to pass comment on such a contentious issue, when you have never ridden in a race?’

This is a fair comment. But as many sportsmen, whether they are golfers, tennis players, or gymnasts know, it’s a bit of a not seeing the wood for the trees conundrum: because a jockey, like a boxer in a frantic fight, is often consumed in the moment of a tight finish, driven on by adrenalin, not rational thought. And invariably, when confronted with video evidence, they are most contrite.

Twenty-five years ago, I won an Eclipse Award for a radio broadcast on this very subject. And, listening to the words of Frankie Dettori, Sandy Hawley and Ted Walsh, at that time, it is evident that little has changed in the debate, even though animal rights’ activists are far louder in their criticism, these days.

They say that great jockeys have great hands. Hands that immediately convey calm and confidence to any horse that they alight upon. These same hands send messages. Relax. Time to get going. And a whip, for them, is much like a balancing bar for a tight-rope walker: they wave it rhythmically in time with pumping the reins, driving their mounts to the wire.

The whip can get attention. It can steer. Now and again, it can convey urgency. And anyone who has stood at the three-eighths pole, as a field of horses leaves the backstretch and the race gets serious, will hear all manner of chirping, whistling, shouting, and the smacking of whips as riders urge their mounts on. This is natural. This is competition. But what is not acceptable is flogging horses that are well beaten, and/or striking them in the ribs (behind the girth) or even worse, around the sheath or teats.

Having worked as a traveling head lad in a top stable in France many years ago I would see horses returning after races with shocking welts that would put them off their feed and often not disappear for days. And today, at every racetrack, I strongly believe that commission veterinarians should inspect every horse after each race for signs of abuse, taking photos as evidence, and then hand out suspensions and fines based upon what they see, rather than what videos actually show.

As the great Willie Shoemaker once said, ‘More horses are beaten out of the winner’s circle than into it.’

Every jockey should be reminded of this. And perhaps, remembering what a great jockey he was, they will think twice before beating up an animal that is responsible for their bread and butter.

–Robin Dawson

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