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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mark Johnston 'The Whip Debate'

Bletherings Blog

April 2011

25th April 2011

Here we go again. The Racing Post is looking to alter the course of racing and the rules of the sport through biased, emotive, tabloid journalism. The very fact that they use a red ‘prohibited’ sign on their front page and in the centre of the, two page, spread which they give to what they call ‘the whip debate’, sets the tone for their coverage.

When David Ashforth wrote his first piece on the whip last week, I contacted Alan Byrne (Editor-in-chief of the Racing Post) and said that I believed David Ashforth to be an inappropriate choice, from all the more technically qualified journalists available, to cover this subject. He replied that ‘one doesn’t have to have played Hamlet to express a view on whether a performance is a good one’. True, but hardly a fair comparison.

That view simply confirms their opinion that the most important issue relating to the whip is public perception. I accept that public perception is important but, in my mind, it comes a distant second to horse welfare.

I have said for many years that it is a mistake to, effectively, accept flawed views on animal welfare and take measures to placate an ignorant majority. Doing so only presents an opening for the thin end of a wedge which will not go away.

Racing should, on all issues, be prepared to present experts who can educate the public rather than pander to a populist view. The Racing Post should also have journalists that can offer an informed, balanced, view and, on a subject like this, it is not acceptable to say that public perception takes precedence over everything else.

David Ashforth, today, refers to an article I wrote for the Kingsley Klarion and no doubt, having done so, will claim that he has offered my alternative view. But he has, by taking parts of sentences and re-punctuating, hopelessly misquoted me.

He claims that I said that whips are “an essential tool for the purpose of controlling a horse, for instance, to discipline them, prevent interference and aid steering”. You will see, if you read the full text of what I said below, that this is not what I said. I, in fact, often get frustrated with riders who resort to the whip for steering purposes and forget that the principal steering aid is, of course, the reins.

Furthermore, I don’t particularly like the regular use of the whip on the neck and shoulder which has now become, under the rules, preferable to use on the rump.

I could write pages on this subject if I didn’t have to go to Yarmouth now, but, if nothing else, I’d like to highlight the failure of those currently debating the whip to consider its use to initiate the flight response in the racehorse.

Greyhounds are ‘fight’ animals and we use artificial prey (the lure) to encourage them to run; horses are ‘flight’ animals and we need an artificial predator or other stimulus (the whip) to initiate the full response. We can’t use an artificial lion to chase them.

Can you imagine the furore if we suggested it?

My Klarion article read:

I don't suppose the cranks and bunny-huggers will ever give up trying to get the whip banned from horseracing, but it would be nice to think that they bother to listen to the counter arguments.

Sadly, it seems, they do not. This issue rears its ugly head every year or so and, every time it does, I reiterate what I consider to be the logical case for retention of the whip, but it looks like nobody ever bothers to listen.

They keep coming out with the same old drivel which assumes that the purpose of the whip is to make the horse go faster and increase its chances of winning. That, to my mind, would only be truly logical if some had them and some didn't. You could of course argue that some jockeys are more effective with the whip than others but then again, if you took the whips away, as John Francome says, some jockeys would still be better than others at using other methods of encouragement.

The latest thing is that the RSPCA have commissioned a study which they say has proved that the whip makes no difference to the result of the race and, as the study was carried out in Australia, that, presumably, includes when jockeys wave it around like the blade on a propeller.

So what? As I have said above, they all have them and so they are clearly not there in order to give an advantage over competitors. Whips, sticks, riding crops, or whatever you want to call them, have been carried as long as man has been riding horses and that is simply because they are an essential tool for the purpose of controlling a horse.

The whip is often, as is recognised in the rules of racing, required to discipline horses, to prevent interference between horses in a race and, to some extent, to aid steering. But, to my mind, it has a far more important function in racing: to keep a horse balanced and, ultimately, reduce the risk of serious injury even when it is getting tired towards the end of the race.

In breeding horses to race over centuries we have selected for and greatly enhanced the flight response which is inherent in all horses. That response, which is driven by chemicals in the body such as adrenalin and endorphins, can be initiated quite easily in a fit, trained, racehorse by the very excitement of being at the races but it must be maintained throughout the race. There are many physiological changes taking place as part of the flight response and, together, they ensure that the mechanical components of the body are fuelled to capacity and can work up to maximum output but with natural limiters in place to try to ensure that the body is not pushed to breaking point.

However, as the horse tires, many components of that physiological response wear off. The excitement wanes, the stride shortens and the weight distribution alters with the head and neck lowering and more weight being thrown onto the vulnerable front limbs. At this point, it is in the best interests of the horse to reinforce the flight response and get the horse to the end of the race in a fully alert state. The strokes of the whip, which cause no lasting damage to an animal of that size, initiate a new 'injection' of adrenalin and endorphins.

Those who have heard this argument from me before will know that I like to compare this tiring state with a boxer about to come out for the last round of a gruelling fight. The jockey's use of the stick is akin to the seconds slapping their man's cheek and telling him to get his wits about him, keep his chin in, and look after himself.

I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable about horses racing without theaid of the stick.