Whip Rule Debate Reaches New York As Commissioners Question Whether Change Is Needed

Whip rules have become a popular topic at racing commission meetings in recent months, with new restrictions in California and New Jersey drawing ire from jockeys there and changes coming soon in Kentucky. Now, gaming officials in New York are considering whether they need to take additional steps to restrict whip use in the state.

At a commission of the New York State Gaming Commission held Oct. 19, officials invited several groups representing the interests of racing officials, jockeys, racetrack management, and The Jockey Club to present their views on whip regulation for informational purposes. Commissioners did not call the meeting with the intent of taking any action, but rather allowing a question and answer forum for commission members to better understand the issue before proceeding with any rule changes or choosing not to pursue changes.

Currently, state statutes in New York do not place a limit on the total number of strikes a jockey may make during a race, but stewards do impose a restriction that a horse may be hit no more than five times in a row before being given a chance to respond. Racing officials also say they can and do pull riders in for disciplinary action if they feel the whip has been misused, irrespective of the number of consecutive hits made. Riders are required to sign an acknowledgement of the waiver, which is available in both English and Spanish, before the start of each meet.

Erinn Higgins, state steward at Finger Lakes, said so far this year the track has seen four total violations related to the whip – two riders with one violation each and one rider with two. Braulio Baeza, state steward at NYRA racetracks, estimates there are no more than ten whip violations on that circuit annually, though both agree there were more when the five hit restriction was first put into place.

The stewards agreed that New York was somewhat ahead of its time in imposing some restrictions on whip use ahead of other jurisdictions. From the perspective of Carmine Donofrio, state steward emeritus for NYRA tracks, there’s no reason to fix the current system if it’s working. Donofrio made clear his viewpoint that further restrictions on the whip would be challenging for racing officials to enforce. Although there were no suggestions from the commission that its members were considering banning the whip except for safety or correction (as has been implemented in New Jersey), Donofrio warned that would be problematic.

“Are the stewards supposed to adjudicate that?” he asked. “What if the jockey says the horse was about to prop and I had to hit him. Are you going to call him a liar?”

Current riders and stewards agreed the number of times a rider uses a whip for safety or correction, as opposed to encouragement, is probably low, around five times or so per year. Still, when it is necessary to keep a horse’s attention or correct their path of travel, riders agreed it’s an option they want to have.

Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith appeared at the meeting via teleconference, as did John Velazquez and Javier Castellano. In addition to their concerns about the necessity of the whip for safety, the jockeys raised questions about the integrity of a wagering contest in which horses could not be encouraged by their riders, which might handicap some more than others. Smith recalled his come-from-behind Kentucky Derby win aboard Giacomo in 2005, an effort in which he’s sure he used the whip more than the six-strike limit that now may be imposed in Kentucky.

“He was a horse you really had to ride, but he would respond,” said Smith. “As long as you encouraged him, he would go. He was like a bike — as soon as you’d stop pedaling, he’d stop running. There’s no way in heck I’dve ever won the Kentucky Derby on that horse if you’d put a limit on it or if you’d made me use it in an improper way.”

Smith has been vocal in his opposition to California’s new requirement that riders can only use the whip if it’s turned downward in an underhanded motion, which he says jeopardizes riders’ balance, is ineffective, and can easily result in the horse’s sensitive flank taking the hit because the jockey can’t aim well.

Similarly, Smith said Zenyatta was a horse who tended to coast after passing several horses, and often required him to use the whip to create her thrilling, narrow-margin victories.

Representatives from The Jockey Club say their research has shown riding crop use is one of the primary concerns of the public — both of non-racing fans and racing fans. A 2011 McKinsey and Company analysis showed that along with race day medication and aftercare, it was one of the top three drivers that contributed to a negative public perception of the sport. Jim Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club, said he anticipates the public tolerance for whip use is going to decrease, not increase, as time goes on.

“To me and The Jockey Club, we see a future where hitting an animal with a stick isn’t going to be acceptable anymore,” Gagliano said.

Gagliano believes that while current horseplayers may not be happy with potential changes to whip rules, there are potential customers on the sidelines who may be, and they are the target audience for changes like this.

Representatives of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, including NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza, expressed a desire for whatever rulemaking made in the future to be uniform across the country. Of course, whip rules in California and Kentucky, two key jurisdictions in the Coalition, are already different, meaning either action or inaction in New York would still result in different rules between racing’s three biggest states. Craig Fravel, chief executive officer of racing operations for The Stronach Group, downplayed the potential impact of any rule changes to horseplayers. After all, he pointed out, the number of hits a horse receives in a race isn’t currently printed in past performance records, so it doesn’t seem all that important to bettors.

Panza pushed a bit harder for reform, warning the commission that if something doesn’t change soon, he worries racing in the state will face more public scrutiny. Ever since last year’s headlines about breakdown rates at Santa Anita Park, Panza said NYRA social media managers have encountered more feedback and concern from users questioning the use of the whip on horses — and he doesn’t want to see it become a topic for mainstream news.

“I think when you run a Triple Crown and you can hit a horse six times in the Kentucky Derby and six times in the Preakness, and you come to New York and you can hit them 30 times, I’m pretty sure NBC is going to bring that up,” said Panza. “Right now, New York has no restrictions on the number of times you can hit a horse.”

“Martin, they should be following us,” said Velazquez of the other jurisdictions. “We shouldn’t be following them.”

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