The debate about the whip, especially in jumps racing, is one of the most important issues the sport has to confront. For some it is an existential threat. It has pitched traditionalists against reformers, heretics against the believers.
The focus on equine welfare and all that that entails – with fatalities high up the list too – will be on the Cheltenham Festival next week like never before. The scrutiny will be intense.
Remember it was two years ago that six horses died at the Festival, three in the Grand Annual. The images of tired horses being whacked in the four mile amateur’s race run on soft ground and when only four finished triggered an outcry.
Paul and Clare Rooney who are among the sport’s biggest British owners, then announced they would boycott Cheltenham – albeit only temporarily as it turned out – on welfare grounds.
It led to a review and a marked shift change in public perception which racing is only now starting to come to terms with.
At the prompting of government responsibility for its ultimate resolution has been taken out of the hands of the BHA, and falls to a new independent Horse Welfare Board compromising experts as well as laymen and women.
Its first report landed last month. It is clear as day that stronger penalties for misuse of the whip appear to be a certainty by the autumn. “The overall number of offences (over 500 in 2018) remains unnecessarily high and the current penalties do not provide an adequate deterrent effect,” the board concluded.
In its wake, the BHA has announced a three-month consultation with racing insiders and the public on changes to the whip rules, with a view to deciding on and implementing changes by the end of October.
The number of whip offences fell to an all-time low of 410 last year, less than half the number from 2011. However, the board pointed to concern on the subject from the public and politicians.
It said racing had to demonstrate “a proactive, positive direction of travel in relation to the whip, taking steps to eliminate misuse and leading any discussions around the future removal of the whip for encouragement”.
Far deeper questions are also being raised. Should that consultation include questions about whether a horse should be disqualified when its rider breaks the whip rules and also whether the whip should be banned as a means of encouraging horses in races?
Could punishments for whip misuse even be extended to the trainer and owner who had employed a jockey found to be in breach?
Barry Johnson, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons is the chair of the HWB. “This is a matter of public trust.”
The prevailing thought seems to be that racing needs to address these issues and be accountable if society is to continue to give them a ‘social license to operate.’ Well that is taking it too far.
Racing maybe facing a King Canute moment where the end result is the sport being swamped in a tide of public indignation.
But it needs to draw breath and compose itself and come out with persuasive and reasoned responses. Emotion must not be allowed to replace hard fact and cold analysis. For instance when presented with the evidence from the BHA the Rooneys changed their minds and good on them.
We need to get to the core of fundamental questions: Why do we use the whip – for safety encouragement, or an element of both? Where and when did it start being used? Does it instigate a fight or flight reflex? Does it inflict pain?
If it doesn’t, as most contend, then it’s not cruel then why shouldn’t we continue to use it? And why call it the whip which has such negative violent connotations?
Perhaps a controlled experiment and research would help. If a horse responds to the whip, is it because it focuses them? Does it make them try harder? Or simply stop?
Would we be better off without the whip, so we have lots of hands and heels riding, and maybe carry the whip only for safety?
Do horses go faster with the whip? If not then why do we use them? Especially as it’s always at the end of a race when they are all going slower because they are tired.
As one expert put it to me: “I’m sure if you had hit Seb Coe towards the end of a race he probably wouldn’t have been able to go any faster.”
So many questions and as yet too few answers.
Mark Souster has been the racing writer at The Times since 2016. Before that he was rugby correspondent. In that role he was named sports journalist of the year by the Society of Editors and won sports scoop of the year for his revelations about England’s 2011 World Cup campaign. He has twice been nominated for sports news correspondent of the year.