UK racing’s whip ban has ignited a storm of controversy as riders are suspended left and right for breaking the strict new rules on smacking a horse with the stick.
Yesterday, sitting on a bus that wasn’t going anywhere fast, I had some time to sit and think about the whip rules. And here is what I concluded:
Banning the stick would be good for the horse racing game.
Now, I’ve always carried a whip on a racehorse, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before. When you don’t have the benefit of your seat and legs, a tap (or a smack) with the whip to make a request is a huge deal. It’s a reminder to stay straight, a request to swap a lead, or a demand to stop bucking and concentrate! Whips on the training track are a safety issue.
Once I had to breeze a horse without a stick. Ours had gone missing and no one in the barn had an extra one I could borrow. He was a fast little horse that was full of run and I thought, okay, we can manage this.
But the work went so slowly, it was embarrassing. I held the horse tightly in check until the three/eighths pole, as instructed, and then let him go and asked for run. He gave me a little but soon petered out when he felt like he was finished.
This should have taught me that he didn’t want to run. It didn’t, though. It taught me that I needed to carry a whip every time I breezed, to get the run out of him.
Now I wonder about this strategy. British racing has just changed the game. By limiting the number of times a jockey can hit the horse, they change who will win the race. Now, races won’t always be won by the fastest horse with the best trip. They’ll be run by the fastest horses with the best trip who want to win the race.
“Horses want to run” is the most commonly-used and most skeptically-received explanation when a horse-racing aficionado is speaking to a concerned bystander. “If horses want to run,” the bystander invariably replies, “Why does the jockey have to hit them?”
In training situations, then, yes, a whip is a safety issue. A whack here or a whack there, to straighten out the horse in a race, then, might be a safety requirement.
But when it comes to the push in the homestretch?
Forget the whips. Let the horse that wants to run, win the race.
As for the little horse who was always so eager to run, but when finally asked to breeze without a stick, went nowhere?
He’s still never won a race.
He doesn’t want to.