IF racing’s rules are to work they have to be enforced properly, writes BRIAN O’CONNOR of Irishracing.com. There’s no point in trying to apply those rules if it pays to break them. That’s plainly ridiculous.
The problem with racing’s whip regime is that it pays to break it. Counter arguments about nuance and degree and flexibility are redundant against such a contradiction. The whip rule is racing’s spare p—k at a wedding.
English trainer Charlie Fellowes opened up the debate yet again last week when arguing that his first Royal Ascot winner, Thanks Be, should have been disqualified because jockey Hayley Turner used her whip four strokes more than the permitted seven.
Fellowes argued that changing social attitudes mean use of the whip is becoming more and more of a PR own-goal. That’s a subjective opinion many of us happen to agree with it. But in terms of regulating whip use he had objective logic on his side when arguing that disqualification for exceeding the number of permitted strokes is required to change behaviour.
There are legitimate although hardly conclusive arguments against banning whips for anything but safety and correctional purposes. However imposing limits and then permitting jockeys to benefit from exceeding them – with commensurate pay-offs for owners, trainers and punters who’ve backed the horse – is a fudge that achieves neither one thing nor the other.
Fellowes’ contribution reheated an old debate that once again prompted suggestions about racing being so unique a proposition that logic doesn’t have to apply to it. I’m sorry but logic must apply. And it’s because it does that the most important contribution came from Turner herself when conceding she wouldn’t have ridden Thanks Be like that if it meant a two or three month ban.
In order to be effective any regulation requires a penalty strong enough to deter those tempted to break it. For years now that hasn’t been the case and we’re left with a self-defeating hotch-potch which leaves the sport wide open to accusations of expediency. When the stakes are rich enough jockeys will breach the rules. Turner’s admission indicates that’s no accident.
Arguing that jockeys can’t count to seven in Britain, or eight here in Ireland, or five in France, is an insult to their intelligence and ours. Jockeys ride to the culture that applies. If the culture is created whereby exceeding the limit means disqualification then one or two controversial cases might occur before minds get quickly concentrated. Jockeys ride to rules that are enforced.
Fellowes held up Christophe Soumillon’s whiphappy rides on Thunder Snow in the Breeders Cup Classic as an example of grisly abuse of the stick. He has a point although leaving the jurisdiction for an example was hardly necessary. Even the blessed Frankie Dettori has been known to get heavy handed on his US trips!
But Soumillon is still the top rider in France where the stroke limit is five. He rides within the rules there, although presumably if the pay-off is big enough he will break them without fear of disqualification. His Thunder Snow spin however does shows his willingness to really cut loose when permitted.
That also casts doubt on those claims about the modern whip being little more than some sort of tickling stick – otherwise why use it so enthusiastically when allowed if its effect is supposedly so limited?
Speaking of Frankie Dettori—he’s going to be in Killarney on Wednesday. The last time he was in The Kingdom was 21 years ago at a track that doesn’t even exist now – Tralee. There was genuine excitement at the time about someone so box office riding in Kerry. A crowd of 6,000 turned up. It will be interesting to see if the Italian superstar adds to the gate in Killarney.
He should because over two decades later he’s possibly even more box office and is racing’s one truly recognisable figure. It doesn’t hurt either that he’s riding as well as ever. That’s some feat at 48.