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14/10/2011 No.13
rendspotting Comment
Chris Cook
Fri 14 Oct 2011
  Where the BHA went wrong over the whip

Racing is in crisis on the eve of Ascot's Champions Day, the most valuable card ever staged in Britain. How has this happened?

If you take 10 months over a single task, the result had better not unravel in four days. Alas for the British Horseracing Authority, their new rules on whip use (drawn up after much pondering) have caused an almighty storm which appears very damaging to the sport's image and to their own reputation for competence, such as it was.

The review process is more secret than might be expected – I was politely rebuffed when asking who had given evidence – but I think it is possible to identify a number of wrong turns for which the BHA is at least largely responsible.

I am not a fan of whipping and, about 18 months ago, used this space to outline the possible benefits to the sport if we decided to prevent jockeys from using whips to make horses go faster. So you might think that I'd be in favour of the new restrictions.

But I also love racing and wish it would thrive. At the moment, these new rules are an obstacle between the sport and any rosier future.

Here's hoping the BHA is not so hidebound as to resist necessary amendments. Here are the five basic mistakes which have led them to this sorry situation.

1) Singling out the jockeys

A jockey who breaches the new rules pays a serious price. In addition to a ban of at least five days, they lose their fee for that race and any share of prize money they may have earned from it.

No one pretends this is fair. The penalties are harsh because it is hoped they will have a deterrent effect. But that effect would have been significantly enhanced if trainers and owners were also to lose their prize money when their jockey breaks the rules.

A jockey must, after all, bow to his employers. Even now, it is perfectly possible to imagine a trainer or owner telling their jockey: "You must win this if you possibly can. Don't worry about the flaming whip rules or the 20-day suspension you might get. Win this and you'll ride every one of my horses for as long as you can climb into the saddle."

Yes, there is a rule that bars owners or trainers from reimbursing the rider after a whip-rule breach. But it is continued employment that matters most to jockeys. Next month, your ban and your fine will be forgotten but you will still have a loyal supporter if you got his horse home in front when it mattered.

If, when a jockey breaks the rules, the trainer and owner also lose their prize money, they may suddenly be much more keen to stress the importance of staying within the rules. The jockey may also be more keen to avoid trouble, knowing that it would cost his employers as well as himself.

It is no answer to say that owners or trainers cannot, from their position in the stands, control how many times their jockey uses the whip. In this country, as in many others, employers are responsible for what their employees do in the course of their job. If he broke the rules, it is at least in part because you didn't pick someone who could be trusted or trained to stay within them. Why should you be allowed to benefit from his transgression?

Putting the whole weight of compliance on the shoulders of the jockeys is unfair. It has also led to some of the unfavourable coverage this week because many riders, normally reluctant to moan about their lot, have been sufficiently outraged to speak their minds in public.

2) Putting strict limits on the number of hits
It seems that those jockeys who gave evidence to the review group made a plea for certainty. The old whip rules were so imprecise that, inevitably, they were enforced in different ways at different tracks and at different times.

The new whip rules achieve certainty by specifying strict, low limits for the number of times a horse can be hit. But, surprise, jockeys are now upset by the loss of discretion.

In the first three days of their application, the rules were breached by riders of the calibre of Richard Hughes and William Buick. We know from familiarity with these men that they are talented, intelligent and have no great history of pushing rules to their limits just for the sake of it.

On Monday, Hughes used his whip once too often and knew it, but one of his strokes was intended to keep his horse from bumping into a rival and, he believed, would not be counted against him.

He was wrong. The rules allow for no appreciation of the difficulties facing a jockey. If you have used up your allowed number of hits, you cannot then take your hands off the rein to use the whip for any reason, not even to prevent your mount from swerving towards the rail where spectators stand, innocent of any danger.

As jockeys are already finding, it is not easy to keep count of your whip strokes when there is so much else to think about in mid-race. It is not always clear when you have passed the furlong pole, after which you are limited to five strokes.

Willing and talented jockeys are finding that these rules are hard to obey and yet the punishment for failure is extremely stiff. It is a combination that invites rebellion rather than respect. Whatever the review body was told by jockeys, it should have had the sense to see that a strict numerical limit on the number of hits was just asking for trouble.

3) Failing to keep the jockeys onside
Tony McCoy told another reporter at Huntingdon on Tuesday that the BHA had brought some of the negative coverage on themselves by failing to ensure jockeys were properly briefed about the new rules before they were published. Many of them, he said, were shocked to discover the financial penalties they would face for a breach.

That certainly chimes with my experience that day, when almost every rider I spoke to expressed bitter resentment of the idea that their fees could be taken off them, even after they had completed the job. Most were prepared to accept the concept of harsh punishment for whip breaches, in the form of lengthened bans, but railed against the idea of forfeiting prize money and, especially, their fee.

This doesn't seem to make financial sense. A jockey's riding fee is just over £100 and his share of prize money may not be much more for the kind of low-value race that you get on so many cards these days. A 15-day ban, on the other hand, could cost him a significant four-figure sum.

Nevertheless, this is how jockeys feel. If I break the rules, you can stop me riding for a few days but you can't take off me money that I'd already earned.

Given that position, it seems the BHA has started a bitter fight for no good reason. Surely lengthy bans would be enough to show that the new rules had teeth, without also insisting on taking money that the riders are so loth to part with.

Perhaps the review body was misled by those people who should have been representing the jockeys' opinions during the review. Those people certainly don't seem to have done much of a job.

But, given the decision to punish only the jockeys for whip breaches, and given that the punishments would be so harsh, it was imperative for the BHA to make sure that jockeys generally were persuaded that the new system was the best way forward. Instead, the entire profession seems close to revolt.

It is a disaster for the BHA to have so thoroughly lost the goodwill of so many racing professionals. Its various functionaries have not been elected and have no divine right to rule. They govern unchallenged only for as long as the governed are happy to accept that state of affairs, so it is surely a mistake to test their patience to this extent.

4) Failing to stress the qualities of the modern whip
The sport has not clamped down on whip use for welfare reasons, but for public relations reasons. Use of the whip is not thought to be cruel, but we are concerned that it looks cruel to people who know no better.

The modern, air-cushioned whip has been in use for years. Used correctly, it encourages a horse to quicken without inflicting pain (or so we are told – it is not possible to be sure whether the horse feels pain or not).

Richard Hughes recently told me and another journalist that he could hit us with his stick and we would feel nothing more than the momentary chagrin of being assaulted by a high-profile sportsman. We didn't test the theory but I now wish we had. I would like to be able to tell you if he was right and one of these days I will summon the courage to put the experiment into effect.

If everyone in the sport is persuaded that the whip is such an innocuous instrument, then why put such severe limits on its use and hammer those jockeys who step so much as an inch over the line?

Whatever we believe, the wider public currently has no reason to imagine that the whip is anything other than what it looks like, an evil rod that would bring tears to your eyes if a professional belted you with it.

Let the BHA have the courage of its convictions. Before it makes any more moves to curb whip use, why not try explaining to everyone that this might not, actually, be necessary?

5) Timing
There are still some people prepared to argue that the timing of the new rules doesn't matter, that there would have been controversy whenever they were introduced and there would never have been a perfect time.

Those are fair points. Still, while there might not have been a good time, this week has proved to be a very bad time indeed.

Whip-related controversies have completely taken over coverage of the sport in papers and on TV, radio and internet. Champions Day on Saturday has struggled to get a look-in. The British press has not been able to give it anything like the same buildup that was given to the Arc de Triomphe a fortnight ago, which seems a pity, since this is supposed to be our answer to that fine day's racing in Paris.

If I were one of the Qatari royals who have helped raise the prize money for Saturday to £3m, I would be thoroughly disgusted by the way the event has been marginalised by a predictable controversy. I might be thinking that there was little merit in handing all that money to a sport so cack-handed as to squander it in this way.

Consider also the sheer quantity of heartache that was necessary in order to create this day's racing, wresting a Group One from Newmarket and revising the autumn programme so thoroughly as to outrage some within the sport. All that trauma could only be justified if the final event was a great success.

The BHA took 10 months over its whip review. There would, I submit, have been no complaints had they timed publication for the Monday after Champions Day, rather than three weeks before. Even if some were prepared to suggest that the timing was cynically contrived, that would have been a much happier outcome than what has in fact happened.

There may be few low-key Saturdays in the racing calendar but almost any of them would have been a better first Saturday for the new whip rules than this one. Personally, I can't see why 1 January was not chosen as the best start date, around 10 weeks before any race that could really be called high-profile. Flat-racing jockeys would have had three months to try out the new rules on the all-weather before the turf season opened.

Instead, it seems that many of those involved in the review felt satisfied that five days before the brand new Champions Day was a perfectly good time to kick things off. If anyone at the BHA objected, we have not heard from them. Was there really no one to speak up and say, hold on a minute, guys, this is idiotic …

Racing's ruling bodies have done some stupid things in the 25 years since I started following the sport but I can't think of a more grievous blunder that could so easily have been avoided. A plc that damaged its own interests in this way would make a point of firing someone in a very public manner.

In the BHA's case, I don't imagine a single dismissal would be fair or especially productive. But, as an organisation, it looks less competent than ever before. Acknowledging this mistake would be a first step towards recovering some of the respect which has haemorrhaged from it in the last few days.
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