Spare a thought for BHA’s embattled defenders on the battlefield of the Whip Rules. They are a motley cavalry, desperately trying to hold the line in the face of nearly the entire, embattled Racing profession, from jockeys and trainers, through owners to punters – there’s even a spectacularly solid phalanx of racing broadcasters and journalists taking the field. Meanwhile the bamboozled defenders are rushing around in all directions, have little in common as to what they think the battle’s about (let alone about how to win it) and are only united in their frustration at the stupid mendacity of the jockeys who’ve been cast as the villains of the piece.
There are the politically astute animal rights fifth-columnists who see that the best strategy to reach their goal of a ban on Horse Racing is to chip away at easy targets on the Sport’s periphery until there’s nothing much left worth defending. Alongside them in Unholy Alliance ride the High Priests of the Animal Charities, which – whatever they’ve said in the past – have now quite openly declared their hand and stated publicly that they want the whip banned completely.
Then, scrubbing along on their moth-eaten old palfreys, are a handful of genuine racing enthusiasts cursed with a guilty, puritan disposition. They want to see the whip banned to salve their collective conscience for taking pleasure in a sport which deep down they struggle to feel is anything other than cruel and frivolous (a peculiarly British legion, this, but we’ll let that pass).
Next to them, somewhat embarrassed by their proximity to this rabble, but proudly mounted on gleaming chargers, canter a handful of eminent racing insiders who feel that jockeys resort to the whip too soon and without artistry, and that legislation and draconian penalties are the best way to achieve a “culture change” to limit its use.
Last comes the lumbering state landau carrying the rump of the BHA, in thrall to a “public perception” which they have known all along has been fuelled – if it exists at all – by a potent mixture of ignorance and propaganda. The gilded but unwieldy landau now finds itself caught between Devil and Deep Blue Sea, unable to turn back for fear of losing a face which most observers will agree was lost a long time ago. Rather like the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, the Duke of Holborn Towers emerges as a comic operetta monster who has been “leading his regiment from behind”; and as the front-line troops are sacrificed the sense that the BHA has been reactive rather than proactive in this whole wretched business becomes clearer by the day and by the dictum.
Without doing another tedious tour of the battlefield, it has to be said that one of the most useful facets of the struggle which began in earnest on October 10th has been the explosion of several mythic mines. We are now perfectly clear that the matter of “public perception” about the evils of whipping was vastly overstated. We are also clear that the previously unregarded matter of “punter perception” has produced a torrent of anger and disillusion over horses trying their best (or not) which may take years to redress.
We know a lot more about how jockeys use the whip, for urging and focus through sound, rather than by administering pain and “punishment”. We know that the main problem of the rules – aside from the outrageously inequitable penalty list – is the (still almost entirely inflexible) “stroke count” which makes no allowance for circumstances in the moment, and has resulted in many excellent, professional rides being penalised as well as some cack-handed amateur ones. Last and certainly not least, we are clear that there is no welfare issue surrounding use of the whip, no scientific evidence to indicate that horses find it psychologically or physically distressing.
So it should almost be unnecessary to point out to this benighted raggle-taggle army of defenders that the emerging statistics do nothing at all to give them any cause to hope that the whip rules will gradually become workable, or acceptable to the majority of racing’s supporters. These rules were introduced by BHA, remember, with a very specific stated aim: to address “public perception” by facilitating a reduction in the number of bans and a “culture change” amongst the jockeys. So how is this aim being met?
The figures will make depressing reading for everyone. From October 10th to November 30th 2010 there were 98 punishments handed out (many of them “cautions”) which resulted in 168 days loss of jockeys’ earnings. From the introduction of the brave new rules on October 10th this year through to November 30th, there have been 113 offences (not counting those annulled after the BHA’s retreats in the face of the initial blitzkrieg) which have resulted in a total of 598 days bans from the Stewards. That’s right – 598 days of lost earnings (in addition to large piles of confiscated fees and winnings) in under two months for a profession which has been treated by BHA with a paternalistic contempt unheard of since the “bad old days” of the post-war Jockey Club.
This means that – far from encouraging a fall in whip bans and a sunny new dawn for “perception” (if anyone outside racing really cares about the matter at all) – there has been a rise in offences of about 15%, and a massive 355% rise in bans. We can imagine exactly what David Muir, fuming in his RSPCA lair – let alone Animal Aid and the fundamentalists – will be doing with this brilliant propaganda handed them by BHA so thoughtfully on a silver platter.
Meanwhile the puritan palfrey-riders are attempting to dredge up “evidence” to show that collateral damage to racing’s image has been lessened by the new rules, in terms of marginally fewer incidents of careless riding, for example. Even if their figures are correct, and statistically significant, there’s no earthly reason for linking the reduction in careless riding offences to the new whip rules. These straw-graspings would be sad if they weren’t risible.
No. The new whip rules are not working, because they are unworkable. They are infuriating nearly everyone, on both sides of the argument. They are reducing the appeal and quality of British racing and race-riding. And, most damning of all, the figures show that they are very clearly working directly against the very aim which they were intended to further.
Most of us don’t want to see the pleasant, anodyne sight of “horses just running around a field” (Lydia Hislop). We don’t want to see the back of such tough old curmudgeons as Lough Derg (tweeted by Nick Luck as the first equine “victim of the whip laws”). We want to see “the stiffening of the sinews” as horse and rider strive in poetic unison to win the race. We want to see competitive racing, the heat of battle, rather than a polite Sunday School egg-and-spoon contest where all shall have prizes.
And we need to make sure that the motley cavalry which wants to deny us that and harry British Racing towards the abyss of provincial obscurity is driven from the field, sooner rather than later. Let’s hope the statistics provide at least the non-fundamentalist anti-whippers amongst them with some food for sensible thought.