The way rule changes are implemented is every bit as important as the changes themselves.
California's recent adoption of stricter whip use guidelines July 1 is a laudable example of how long-term planning and cooperation can produce positive changes for racing.
The most recent debate over whip use in racing dates back to 1998 when the then-New York State Racing and Wagering Board issued rules that stated a rider could only hit a horse on the shoulder or the rump. Riders also were penalized if the whip caused a welt or broke the skin or if the horse was struck when it was clearly out of contention in a race.
New York and other states also have pursued the use of "friendlier" whips.
By 2009 the major racing states had passed rules requiring jockeys to use a new style of crop—one with a longer, padded tip that produces more of a "pop" than a sting. The older version of whip had a two inch-long tip made of solid stitched leather. The new version's padded tip is six inches long. Both whips are about 30 inches long.
These new whips, while not as severe, still didn't address the frequency with which whips were being used. The horses apparently don't feel the new "poppers" as acutely as the old whips, but the overenthusiasm some riders have in using the whip does affect the fans watching the races. Telling the sporting public "the horse comes first" rings hollow when one appears to be beaten down the stretch. Victor Espinoza attracted heavy criticism for his whip use on American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and later was fined $300 for causing a break in the skin with a crop on Stellar Wind during the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I). It should be noted that Stellar Wind's trainer John Sadler said he did not see any injuries or marks on the filly following the Oaks.
To address the perception and welfare problems, California followed the lead of Great Britain and moved to define how often the crop can be used. The rule change—the strictest in the country—reads: A jockey is prohibited from using the crop more than three times in succession without giving the horse a chance to respond before using the crop again.
California steward Scott Chaney said racing officials have agreed that two strides are enough to indicate a response.
Kept in place were requirements that a rider must show the horse the crop first before using it, the crop must be used in rhythm with a horse's stride, and the crop should be used as an aid to keep a horse running straight.
The new rule was drafted in cooperation with the Jockeys' Guild, which also helped educate riders about the changes long before the California Horse Racing Board approved the rule.
"We feel comfortable with what we have come up with. It's really all about perception," said Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild after the rule had been adopted. "It looks bad when a rider keeps after a horse. It's for the good of the game."
Then once the rule was in place and ahead of its deadline for implementation, the Guild continued educating its members and stewards began giving riders warnings whenever they were in violation.
"We've been practicing for today for eight months," jockey Kent Desormeaux told BloodHorse.com July 2, the day after the rule went into effect.
The manner with which California's new whip rule evolved is a model for tackling other issues facing racing. Allow all affected parties to be involved in drafting the rule, and then have these same people engaged in the education and promotion of the new rule. Such an approach to all problem-solving would certainly be good for the game.