In 2011, the British Horseracing Authority adopted a new rule, in which a jockey in a flat race was not permitted to hit a horse more than seven times and no more than five times in the final furlong. The eighth whip would be an automatic breach of the rules and result in any one of a number of penalties.
Despite the urging of animal rights groups, the whip was not totally banned, which would not have been feasible, considering the nature of the game and the beast.
The following year, the rules were revised, allowing the stewards to exercise discretion when reviewing a rider’s use of the whip. Now, hitting a horse eight times would trigger a stewards’ review rather than resulting in an automatic penalty.
An RSPCA spokesman called the revised rules a “backward step” and “a black day for the racing industry.”
So, even the British Horseracing Authority, with its good intentions to at least do something, was unclear as to where to draw the boundaries. On one side was feasibility and not handcuffing the jockeys completely, and on the other side was the pressure from the RSPCA and other animal rights groups and what was best for the protection of the horse.
It therefore was not surprising when readers wrote to me about Miguel Mena’s over-zealous use of the whip on International Star in the Louisiana Derby. One could sense their frustration and outrage, knowing they would bear no results. Unfortunately, I had no answers.
Hitting a horse around 30 times in the Louisiana Derby or any other race was bad enough, but when Victor Espinoza hit the nation’s leading 3-year-old, American Pharoah, 32 times (it probably was less actual hits than it appeared) in the Kentucky Derby, the avalanche of protest that followed was expected. After all, this was a horse who had not felt the whip before and had won his two starts this year being eased down the stretch as if in a public workout.
In addressing this matter, whether condemning Espinoza, as I have other jockeys for whip abuse, or defending him under the circumstances (he did a lot of waving with the whip), I realized I wasn’t the person to attempt to clarify this or act upon it one way or the other. The sad part is I don’t know if it was something that could be clarified or acted upon, which makes it even more frustrating.
We notice the horses on or near the lead in the stretch that are being hit excessively. But even more egregious in its own way is whipping a horse that is at the back of the pack and obviously going nowhere. These horses are done and are already in retreat and there is absolutely no reason to hit that horse even once after a certain point. But we don’t notice that. Go watch the head-on replay of several races and see how often that occurs.
Let’s envision the following conversation, and feel free to put yourself right in the middle of it:
Non-racing person: “Horse racing is cruel.”
Racing person: “Horse racing isn’t cruel. The horses are well-taken care of, they are bred to run, and they love to run.”
Non-racing person: “If they love to run why do they have to be whipped to do it?”
Racing person: “Uh, well, let’s just say most love to run and some are lazy and have to be encouraged to run.”
Non-racing person: “So, doesn’t encouraging any living creature to do something it doesn’t want to do by whipping it constitute cruelty?”
Racing person: “Not in racing. Whips today have been re-designed and are much kinder on a horse.”
Non-racing person: “So, are you saying American Pharoah was lazy and needed to be encouraged to win the Derby, and that’s why the best 3-year-old in America was hit over 30 times with the whip?”
Racing person: “No, but he had never been in this tough a fight and needed to be reminded that this was no cakewalk, like the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Also, Victor Espinoza wasn’t hitting him on the bare shoulder or rump, but was hitting him in the area around the saddle and girth, where there is more protection.”
Non-racing person: “So, let me get this straight, Espinoza was making sure he wasn’t hurting the horse, but only days later was fined for breaking the skin on the filly Stellar Wind due to excessive use of the whip.”
You can see where this conversation is, or isn’t, going. For every explanation we attempt to give, there is always going to be another question. We in racing love the sport, the beauty, the action, and, of course, the horses. But sometimes, as much as we try, we find it difficult to convince people, whether they are horse lovers or detractors of the sport, why something perceived as wrong by many is not wrong, but misunderstood. What makes it even more difficult is that in many cases, such as this, we’re also trying to convince ourselves. After all, why would we devote our lives and pour our emotions into something we believe deep down is cruel or at least has elements of cruelty in it? When we attempt to defend certain aspects of racing, to whom are we really defending them? We hear our own words as loudly as the person to whom we are speaking.
In racing, the show, like all shows, is performed in front of the curtain. That is where the director can make it as beautiful, as emotional, and as spectacular as he (or she) wants. But that control is lost whenever life behind the curtain is exposed, because that is where perception becomes reality.
Racing has had too much exposure behind the curtain at a time when cynics come armed with cell phone cameras and hidden microphones. In the sport’s recent glory days of the 1960s and ‘70s, drugs, fixed races, neglect, and horse slaughter were kept safely behind the curtain. Naivete superseded cynicism, and we saw only what was shown to us and what we wanted to see. The whipping of horses was one thing that was played out on stage, but we paid no attention to the amount of times a horse was whipped. We didn’t even know to what extent a horse felt those whips. We knew only of our heroes and their Herculean deeds. We marveled at their amazing feats, oblivious to anything else. When you are exposed to someone or something with such great beauty, there is no reason to start peeling back the layers of makeup. No one wants to see what lies beneath.
And now almost a half-century later, some of us, who remember the innocence and ignorance of those days, are asked to explain and defend the sport with which we fell in love a lifetime ago. But how can you defend something you can’t defend, as much as you try to instill its righteousness and nobility into your own heart and soul? It has to be deeply embedded in there before you can convey it to others.
I want to address these matters and try to provide solutions. I want to explain to people about drugs and whipping horses and impress upon them that the Sport of Kings goes beyond the frailties that exist within its realm. Racing, like other endeavors in life, has numerous imperfections. But unlike other endeavors, racing’s imperfections seem to take precedence over its myriad of virtues by those seeking to destroy it.
The most difficult part, however, is trying to explain racing’s pitfalls in the form of drugs and neglect and abuse of the whip to those who love the horses and are sickened and appalled when they are abused in any way. Those are the people who come to me looking for answers. The truth is, I have no answers, because, I, too, am sickened and appalled. And while the sport has made great strides in protecting horses, it still is lax in many areas. And, remember, a great deal of the horse protection we witness nowadays is due to the efforts of individuals and private organizations, where tens of thousands of people give tirelessly of themselves and seek funding to save horses and find them proper homes.
The bottom line is, I wish I had the answers, and even if I believe I did, answers have a way of falling on deaf ears in this sport.
Did Victor Espinoza overdo his use of the whip in the Kentucky Derby? It would certainly appear that he did. In his mind, was it abuse or mistreatment? Of course not. Did you ever root a horse down the stretch holding a rolled up program or Racing Form and start whipping your own butt over and over again? Do you ever notice how hard you’re actually hitting yourself? The closer the finish the harder you hit. Why do you do this? Because it’s a natural act of urging on your horse, even though it has no effect on the horse whatsoever. But what if it did? What if every time you hit yourself with that program, the horse felt it? Imagine the power it would give you. Espinoza and all jockeys have that power, and often with a lot more at stake than a $2 bet.
So, while Espinoza is guilty of overuse of the whip on Stellar Wind, and arguably American Pharoah, and deserves to be punished, incidents like that are going to continue unless we adopt policies like the one they have in England. Not because of any cruel intent, but because of the natural act of using the whip to urge on a horse. You can’t just tell a jockey to stop something he’s done all his life. You have to make penalties serve as an inducement where he at least thinks about what he’s doing and learns to control his actions. The British jockeys have learned it; so can ours.
In trying to simplify what is not a simple matter, we can protest and accuse and vilify anything and anyone we wish. That is our right. And in the case of whipping horses excessively, we need to keep doing it until someone listens. The vast majority of jockeys are acting out of instinct, not cruelty, so we have to direct our protests at their superiors in the hope they will act, as the British did, in controlling those instincts.
Horseracing is the most beautiful, exciting sport in the world. At a time when that entire world is watching with microscopic scrutiny, we must clean up the mess behind the curtain and stop piling on the makeup. Once we start creating a deeper beauty, only then will racing put on a show we can all be proud of.