No Whip, No Wince

(Originally published in the January 5, 2019 issue of BloodHorse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Edward L. Bowen

For a 19-year-old groom during a summer between college semesters the sense of being on the inside of the game brought a knowing smile the morning one of the exercise riders said the boss was tired of this horse “cheatin’ on him,” and was prepared to take action. They came back from the workout having “tatooed that s.o.b.” and predicting our first trip to the winner’s circle as a groom was around the corner.

This seemed like the real thing; it was “horse talk,” as the backstretch would have it. If the horse was not responding enough from being hit a few times, how about smacking him every stride down the stretch? And, if the harsher tactic needed justification, getting your picture taken after the race was pretty cool.

Well, the summer was not quite half over when one of the two stakes winners in the barn came back from a race with angry-looking welts, about to ooze blood—along the right side, on the flank, even underneath and almost to her belly. This was another side of use of the whip, but it did not change the fundamental acceptance that whipping was part of being a jockey. It just needed to be done right, and this filly’s jock had done it wrong.

Over the years, after moving into journalism for a trade publication, we winced from time to time from references to use of the whip. For example, a chart note that was cringeworthy was the description “prevailed under heavy punishment.” Punishment? For what? This was not an outside source casting an accusative eye toward the Turf; it was how we described it to ourselves.

Still, we make no claim to experiencing any personal epiphany about the whip. Many years passed—decades, in fact—and we had to have it shoved in our face that public attitudes can change. The use of elephants in circuses was offending the public. The elephant in the room was that the elephant shouldn’t be in the room. Meanwhile, even the creature called a Killer Whale came to be seen as the sympathetic figure vis a vis the human being.

Maybe that time-honored horse racing phrase “whipping and driving” also needs rethinking, to eliminate the harsher (whipping) of those two colorful descriptions.

Under auspices of the National Museum of Racing, the Foal Patrol program takes the public into the birth scene of the Thoroughbred, introducing adult and child alike to the charms of the new foal and the magical combination of elegance and awkwardness in its early exploratory steps. Yes, darling, he is cute, and the people who care for him love him. So will those who take care of him later when he grows up to be a racehorse. How will he learn to be a racehorse? Well, he will get used to being ridden and guided by a bit and reins, and then they will take a hard stick and beat him like the dickens across his rear end to encourage him to run fast. You’ll be OK with that, won’t you?

The foregoing is purposely flip and simplistic. It is perhaps offensive to the professional horseman and horsewoman who know the proper use of reins, saddles, blinkers, whips, whatever. What comes to mind is a presentation made by retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit presented by The Jockey Club and Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.

McCarron knows the proper use of the whip and took pride in learning and practicing it. He can demonstrate how a jockey can be at pains to bring the whip down at the proper angle and on the proper part of the equine anatomy.

Among McCarron’s favorite memories are his Kentucky Derby (G1) wins. He recalls that the owner of the first one paid a half-million dollars for the horse and clearly deserved the best effort from his jockey, including the use of the whip as it has been understood and embraced for…well, forever, in a manner of speaking.

McCarron knows—knows—a jockey is doing nothing wrong or inhumane in properly using a whip. We can readily understand, then, how offensive it must be to be told, “Well, it might not be wrong, but it looks bad to certain people, so we need to stop hitting the horse as if that is a part of the sport which must be continued.”

How, he or a compatriot might ask, can I possibly be a complete jockey if I can’t use a whip? The thought here is that they could get used to it as their more subtle communications with the horse took on added importance.

The jockeys of McCarron’s training and ability are certainly horse savvy enough to succeed even if rules change.

Basic practicalities about treating and training animals would continue to be understood. They would not have to be sacrificed in order for Thoroughbred racing to eliminate whipping as a ubiquitous aspect. The human must convince the animal who is in charge. Heck, we spank puppies in order to train them. We well remember the lesson that a pony, presumably, will not drift off in the wrong direction if the rider neck reins its head around to the opposite side. Well, by the time that rubber-necked child’s pet was looking us in the eyes with her head cranked around to the left, and she still was veering to her right, the presumption had to be abandoned. A smart slap of the reins, or, better yet, a crop, was called for and with a certain haste.

Similarly, racehorses can be trained to respect the whip as one element of controlling which direction they run. We have blanched to see a horse drifting, drifting, drifting toward the outside until he seemed likely to tumble over the rail, causing no-telling-what injuries to himself, the jockey, and the railbirds unable to scramble away in time. In some cases the rider has not given up on winning the race and so tries until the last moment to straighten the horse without prompting an abrupt impediment to its progress. Finally, a crack of the whip on the side of the head seems to the rider to be a needed last resort. The image of that last resort refutes the basic premise of this commentary, but life’s emergencies often summon unattractive options.

So, we believe riders should carry whips routinely, but only to use for emergencies such as keeping the horse from (1) veering into another horse or into the paths of other horses, (2) turning the head to savage another horse, (3) bolting to the outside or inside if other horses are close enough to be endangered.

In each circumstance, of course, the reins can be the first resort, followed perhaps by a smack on the neck or shoulder. The jockey should have the weapon at hand to forestall what in his/her judgment seems likely peril to him/herself and to at least one horse. Stewards will be charged with rendering the decision on whether such action was taken for a compelling reason and thus decide whether disciplinary action must be taken.

The history of racing is replete with successful jockeys with reputations for being strong whip riders. Conversely, it has been more than a half-century since Sports Illustrated published a portfolio of original drawings detailing jockey Eddie Arcaro’s renowned “hand ride” as a winning technique.

While Arcaro could achieve the “whipping and driving” technique with the best of them, he was a master at being in concert with the horse, inducing the utmost from the animal with his own physical exertion rather than resorting to the whip. The term “driving,” used alone, connotes that skill.

As Foal Patrol introduces the Thoroughbred neonate and America’s Best Racing explains how lifestyles and horse racing go hand-in-hand, the sport of Thoroughbred racing would do well to heed changing public attitudes. Certainly, eliminating use of the whip as a competitive weapon would take adjustment. Any trainer, owner, or bettor disappointed by the result of a photo finish is bound to grouse, at least inwardly, “If both riders could have gone to the whip, I bet my jock would have carried the day.”

It is difficult to imagine today anyone thinking that, “If they could just use spurs, my jock wins by daylight.”

Eliminating non-emergency use of the whip (overhand, underhand, any hand) would take time to get used to, but not a great deal of time. The trade-off would be ability to show off with pride a beautiful and compelling sport, and without coming to that element which you mutter to the new fan and hope they do not think about very deeply.

The Arcaro handride of old speaks to integral points in favor of doing away with whipping as anything but an emergency measure. If the races are won by the horses with the most competitive natures and by jockeys with the greatest finesse and rhythmic compatibility with the animal, that prevalence would be a positive, not a negative. Such results would not lessen the excitement of the sport, nor the legitimacy of the wagering enterprise, nor the stewardship of the breed.

Rather than resulting from “punishment,” victories would be achieved by inner determinations expressed through visuals which need no apology and which induce only admiration. 

Edward L. Bowen joined BloodHorse in 1963 and was with the publication for most of the next 30 years, including 16 years as managing editor and five years as editor-in-chief. He is also the author of 20 books on Thoroughbred racing. Bowen recently retired after 24 years as president of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.

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