IN THE NEWS: Whip hand poised to rip into racing

IN THE NEWS: On AUG 13, 2009

RACING does not like change. Not at all. That's why it is one of the worst run sports and businesses in the country. Its hold on public interest shrinks by the day. Interest peaks around carnivals where the real focus is on breasts and booze.

It delights in misleading. Sydney racing is being drained of its lifeblood because of corporate bookmakers and betting exchanges. Supposedly. Prize money must tumble. The fact that NSW TAB has record wagering is made exclusive to any argument. That's convenient. The people who are meant to run the business appear to gallop to the reins of wealthy breeders and owners only.

In Victoria, jumps racing is allowed to continue and so horses continue to die. Just so people can have a punt. Eight have died in jumps races this season in Victoria, two in trials and two in South Australia. Horses are said to love jumping. Love falling and dying. New protocols have made a difference, but it is marginal.

Now, the racing fraternity -- media and other stakeholders -- sulk because heavy penalties are being dished out to riders who breach the new whip rules introduced this month. Jockeys Brad Rawiller and Dale Smith and apprentice Lauren Stojakovic have been suspended for four meetings, and lost their riding fee and winning percentages.

These decisions are said to question the very way jockeys ride horses around the country. Well, that is what the new rules, endorsed by the Australian Racing Board, are meant to do actually. Wouldn't be much point in introducing new regulations if they were not designed to change riding patterns and were not going to be rigidly policed. All three jockeys have appealed the severity of the penalties and their cases will be heard by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Tribunal today.

The rules allow horses to be struck only five times before the final 200m and then jockeys are allowed to hit the horses three times in consecutive strides inside that mark, but not in consecutive strides thereafter. The chief executive of the Victorian Jockeys Association, Des O'Keefe, says the penalties are extreme considering the jockeys are still adjusting to the new rules.

That is an absurd, self-serving argument. Can jockeys not count? If a manager tells a jockey he has six rides does it mean nothing to him? How does he get into barrier four? Who counts his money for him? Who has told the jockey the fine is excessive, because someone would have to do that given they are apparently numerically dysfunctional.

What is there to adjust to? Don't hit the horse more than five times before the 200m and do not hit the animal more than three times in consecutive strides after that. Rawiller used the whip in eight consecutive strides in the race which brought his sanction. Smith whacked his mount over 14 consecutive strides.

Jockeys argue that it is hard to stop whipping horses to the line when they have been doing it all their career. That is an unsustainable position. When trainers tell jockeys a particular horse is thin-skinned and to resist whipping it they don't dismount after the race and tell the trainer, "Sorry I have been whipping horses for 20 years so I just kept whipping him". They obey the trainer's instructions. If they don't then they don't get rides.

Jockeys also report back to trainers that the horse resented the whip so, "I put it away and just rode him hands and heels". Jockeys will stop whipping if a horse ducks in or shies away from the pain. It is not an involuntary action.

As for counting, the jockeys can rate a horse to the tick of a stop watch, so the mathematics of counting to five and then three might well be within their grasp. The further argument that the compulsory padded whips do not hurt horses therefore it does not matter how many times a horse is struck, is irrational. If they don't hurt, then there is no purpose in whipping them in the first place.

Racing folk are loath, even frightened to rework traditions. Only when jumps racing was halted in Victoria did the hurdling and steeplechasing community take serious steps to alter how horses were prepared and ridden and what type of tracks and obstacles were appropriate. The sport could always have been improved and made safer but no genuine attempt was made until livelihoods (women, men and horse) were on the line.

Rather than going too far, racing may not have gone far enough. If a horse wins a race but the jockey has breached the whipping rules to gain an unfair advantage then consideration should be given to disqualifying the horse. Trainers and owners will soon be very selective about which jockeys they pick for their horses. If a jockey is prone to flout the whip rules he will soon be among the unemployed.

Given that whipping has been curtailed because it is considered cruel, it is fanciful to think that rules restricting its use and accompanying punishments should be eased in.

So racing must hold its nerve. Whipping animals is unacceptable, the new rules the only possible compromise. If people think the rule changes are about perception alone, then expect more action from those who abhor the flogging of animals. If these regulations do not hold, other questionable traditions in racing will be targeted. The community will only indulge racing horses if they are treated humanely. To belt horses without dogmatic scrutiny is to give the whip hand to a community that will put animal welfare ahead of the thrill of the punt.

Read the full article...