Talking Horses: racing readies itself for new proposals on whip rules
Eleven years after the last major change to racing’s whip rules, the results of the sport’s latest attempt to reach a settled position on its use for encouragement will be published at lunchtime on Tuesday, though anyone who recalls the confusion, anger and occasional moments of high farce that ensued last time around could be forgiven for wondering why racing’s administrators are minded to re-open old wounds.
For those who do not remember the autumn of 2011 – or had hoped to forget – a strict new regime on overuse of the whip came into force on 10 October, five days before the first Champions Day at Ascot.
Seventy-two hours later, Richard Hughes (briefly) handed in his licence in protest after picking up two bans in three days, while the action on one of the sport’s biggest days at Ascot was overshadowed by a £50,000 fine imposed on Christophe Soumillon after the Champion Stakes, for going one stroke over the new limit of five in the final furlong.
“Never can a fine like this have been handed out in sport,” Soumillon protested afterwards, shortly before asking Nick Luck, the interviewer, to lend him £20 for his taxi fare to Heathrow. “I never saw Zinedine Zidane get a fine like this, or Michael Schumacher in Formula One. They have changed the rules five days before the race. Why did they do that? It is amazing.”
Not long afterwards, the BHA rowed back, abandoning a new rule which forced a rider to surrender their percentage for a breach, and simplifying the limit on strokes to seven at any stage on the Flat, and eight over jumps. And a shrewd subsequent amendment to the rules by Paul Bittar, freshly-installed as the BHA’s chief executive in January 2012, turned the stroke limits into a threshold to trigger an inquiry into whether a breach had been committed, rather than an automatic breach.
That amended regime remains in place today, and whip offences have decreased significantly over the decade since its arrival. In 2020, just 0.4% of rides involved a whip offence, a drop of 58% from 2010, while two-thirds of the 297 breaches that year were at the lowest end of the scale, incurring a ban of one or two days.
In the view of the sport’s new independently-chaired Horse Welfare Board, however, that is still not good enough. In its first major publication, A Life Well Lived, in February 2020, the Board stated its unambiguous view that “misuse of the whip is still too high, particularly in some circumstances”, and ordered an immediate consultation on use of the whip, with an increase in penalties for breaches “as a clear, minimum recommendation [HWB emphasis]”.
While that was the only explicit recommendation, it was also clear that the Board envisaged a broader examination of the whip’s role in racing in the longer term.
However, the pandemic then intervened, pushing the process back by at least 12 months. The Whip Consultation Steering Group, drawn from all areas of the industry including trainers, owners, jockeys, welfare organisations and the media, was eventually convened in the spring of 2021, and a 10-week public consultation on the whip, from July to September last year, received more than 2,000 responses.
The Steering Group’s conclusions and recommendations will finally emerge on Tuesday, when according to one report last week, proposals will include the disqualification of winners when jockeys commit serious breaches of the rules. That would be, without doubt, a controversial and significant move, with implications for both owners and punters – the two groups that keep the entire show on the road.
And while that would certainly meet the HWB’s demand for stiffer penalties, it seems unlikely that after such an extended process, the recommendations will stop there. As the sport attempts to retrieve at least some of the losses during the pandemic and faces up to falling attendances amid a cost-of-living crisis, a fresh period of internal turmoil over the whip rules could be imminent, even if it feels like the last thing we need.