What is it that pushes some riders to break the rules on the use of the whip in Thoroughbred horse racing in Australia?
The prospect of coming second – or even last – may have something to do with it, if our team’s study of recorded official whip rule breaches is anything to go by.
In the study, published today in the open access journal Animals, our team analysed the official Stewards Reports and Race Diaries in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
In 2013 alone, there were 56,456 starts in 5,604 races at 785 race meetings on 122 different tracks.
A breach of the whip rules, as defined by the Australian Rules of Racing in place at the time, was reported in 348 starts and of these, 37 included a second breach.
Not all the race rules were breached, so what’s interesting is to look at the breakdown of what breaches occurred, and when during the races.
Of the 139 riders who were responsible for the 348 starts with breaches, 51.08% were repeat offenders – riders who had more than one whip rule breach recorded in 2013. Overall, fines represented about 2.29% of the total prize money won by the horses involved.
The data reveal that there was a significantly higher frequency of recorded breaches by riders of horses that finished first, second or third. This suggests a desire to win may motivate whip rule breaches and potentially affect race and betting outcomes.
The next highest percentage was seen in horses that ran last, which seems to suggest that the desire to not come last may also lead riders into a breach of the whip use.
The data show there was a significantly higher frequency of recorded breaches of the rules of racing at metropolitan than at country or provincial locations.
Despite hosting 67.34% of starts, country tracks recorded only 57.47% of starts with a breach or breaches. Conversely, metropolitan tracks hosted 14.53% of starts and yet recorded 22.13% of starts with a breach or breaches.
This discrepancy may reflect the desire to win may be particularly high at the more prestigious city race tracks, but also may bring into question the quality of surveillance in the non-metropolitan locations.
Horse racing without whips
So what is the future for the use of the whip in Thoroughbred horse racing in Australia?
Late last year Harness Racing Australia established a precedent by becoming the first racing authority in the world to walk away from using a whip to steer or encourage horses to race.
Racing Australia CEO Barry O’Farrell faces unprecedented challenges in balancing the growing demand for horse welfare with the needs of punters and industry tradition.
In 2015, O'Farrell’s predecessor, Peter McGauran, famously told the ABC’s Catalyst he believed the whip does “not inflict pain on a horse” and if there was any aspect of cruelty to it he “would have no part of it”.
A year later, Ray Murrihy, the outgoing chief steward in NSW, conceded that whip use in the future looks dubious. He added:
If we don’t pay due regard to welfare matters, it will be at our peril. If we don’t do it ourselves, the next time we’ll be sitting in the back seat, not the driver’s seat.
And 2017 began with leading racing commentator, Steve Moran, declaring that a ban on the whip in Thoroughbred racing was inevitable and offering sage advice to punters, jockeys and trainers on how to prepare themselves for the transition.
He concluded his opinion piece by proposing that:
[…] the safety of the rider is the only genuinely, critical argument for retaining the whip in racing.
His most recent commentary proposes a step-wise progression to whip use for safety purposes only.
This is surely a tipping point. RSPCA Australia has repeatedly agreed with this position and calls for the introduction of hands-and-heels racing where whips are no longer used for performance but may be carried for safety purposes where proven necessary.
Racing and welfare
Clearly the whip issue is not going away. The integrity of racing, most notably the assurance for punters that the rules are being observed, has to be balanced by the need to show increasing regard for the welfare of horses.
These issues are reflected in the rules of racing in Australia, rules that the industry promotes as a means of both safeguarding horse welfare, and ensuring that:
The rider of every horse shall take all reasonable and permissible measures throughout the race to ensure that his horse is given full opportunity to win or to obtain the best possible place in the field.
Of course, the effectiveness of any rule is reflected in how well it is policed.
Our study raises a number of questions that need to be answered, including whether the number of breaches recorded by stewards aligns with the actual number of whip rule breaches at all of these locations, and what steward- and surveillance-related factors might affect whether a breach is recorded or not.
It is also concerning from a regulatory point of view that a small number of types of whip breach predominated in 2013, with no breaches recorded for 15 of the 24 whip rules.
Our study shows that more than half of all first breaches recorded occurred prior to the 100m mark and involved two whip rules: whip use that raises arm above jockey’s shoulder height; and forehand whip use on more than five occasions prior to the 100m mark.
It is worth noting there have been some changes to the whip rules since 2013, not least to the latter rule in that both forehand and backhand whips strikes are now counted.
Also, under the rules that were current during our study, jockeys were allowed to whip at their discretion after the 100m mark, which is when horses are generally fatigued and, arguably, need more protection from the rules. This remains the case in the latest set of rules, introduced on January 1 this year. These seem rather difficult to interpret in that:
the whip shall not be used on more than 5 occasions save and except where there have only been minor infractions and the totality of the whip use over the whole race is less than permitted under [other rules] and also having regard to the circumstances of the race including distance and context of the race, such as a staying race or a rider endeavouring to encourage his mount to improve.
Our report recommends that racing compliance data be analysed annually to inform the evidence base for policy, education and regulatory change, and ensure the welfare of racehorses and racing integrity.
So, the onus is now on the Thoroughbred racing industry to either invest yet more in surveillance or, following the lead of Harness Racing Australia, revisit the rules.
Horse welfare advocates will be watching O’Farrell’s leadership on the whip issue closely and hoping that his next step provides the industry with a whip-free future.
If the integrity of racing can be assured without the use of whips, as proposed by Harness Racing Australia, the RSPCA and Steve Moran (among others), then O’Farrell can make the administration of Thoroughbred racing more efficient by not having to police complex whip rules.
That would be a big step forward for efficiency and for animal welfare.