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The Future of Horse Racing

March 2017 by Jessica Owers

One Saturday in February 1966, when horse racing was still a miles and furlongs game, 53-year-old Walter John Hoysted clambered onto Flemington’s course proper with a point to prove and a double-barreled shotgun. A son and brother in a line of pedigreed trainers, Hoysted was a racing man, but this game he’d been born into, this sport of kings, it unsettled him in one special way. Wally Hoysted could not make peace with the whip. 

That afternoon at Flemington, he waved his loaded weapon at the field assembled for the Fulham Hurdle. He would shoot any jockey that left the barrier, he said and, for 16 minutes, the Fulham field was held up as police wrestled the old man off the course. Fined £80 for his theatrics, Wally Hoysted wrote himself into history as one of the earliest activists against whip use in Australian racing.

Fifty-one years later, Wally’s gripe is one of the most polarising issues affecting flat, jump and harness racing. The respective bodies governing each code have fidgeted endlessly with whip rules to keep participants happy and the animal rights movement at bay. But it hasn’t been successful. Each time new restrictions on whip use have been passed, a song of discontent has risen from jockeys, trainers and owners, with a pushback from activists that include PETA, the RSPCA and everyday citizens. 

Currently in Australian horse racing, the rules state a jockey may not use his or her whip more than five times before the last 100 metres of a race (including a jump-out or trial). Inside the final 100 metres, the whip may be used as often as the rider likes. There are restrictions on where the horse can be hit, how the jockey can do it and what sort of whip may be used. The industry argues that it cannot go much further in limiting whip use in the sport. Activists say it should be banned altogether.

Late in 2016, Harness Racing Australia (HRA) did just that when it announced the whip would no longer be part of its sport from 1 September this year. The decision was a heroic one on the grounds of animal rights, but immediately was met with revolt from harness participants who argue the integrity of the sport will be comprised. 

Horse racing had every reason to fidget as many drew conclusions that it was now inevitable the whip would be removed from that sport too. But John Messara, stud master and retiring chairman of Racing Australia, and a man of enormous influence in the industry, said the harness ban was irrelevant to the rest of horse racing. “They have an entirely different style of whip than ours,” he said. “It’s apples and oranges.”

The particulars of the harness ban have yet to be nutted out. HRA outlined the whip would no longer be used to urge a horse to perform better, but beyond that it appears the rules are yet to be rewritten. Dale Monteith, chairman of Harness Racing Victoria, says this is because the industry is still in discussion with its participants - drivers, trainers and owners. 

“The announcement was made back in December with this specific period of consultation to iron out issues the industry might have of concern,” he says. In other words, it’s not yet known whether drivers will be allowed to carry a whip, what sort of whip might be allowed and how they might use it.

Montieth was involved in the ban decision, along with the other state and territory representatives, that comprise HRA. “We don’t believe the continued use of the whip to encourage horses to win races is the way we should head in the future,” he says. “But we have to allow drivers to control their horses for safety reasons during the running of a race. It could well be that they will be allowed to carry that same whip [currently in use] to give the horse a tap if it’s veering off-course or getting out of the barriers. Or we might come up with something else they can carry. That’s something we’ll be talking to them about during this period of negotiation.” 

Montieth admits the press releases of December last year, announcing the ban, were wide ranging. 

The ban would cover out-of-competition use also, but with no details on how it would all be policed, drivers and trainers revolted. “We’re not in any way implying that participants don’t care about their horses,” Monteith said. “And, when the press releases came out, it was interpreted that way, and that we were banning the whip altogether, that you couldn’t carry it. But, realistically, we need to get back to the primary premise, as I see it, that the hitting of a horse to try and get it to win a race needs to end. Everything else is open to discussion.”

Since the announcement of the ban, Monteith says he has noticed that drivers are trying to use their whips less in harness races, preparing for how things might be done come September. He says people just need to get their minds around it, because community standards are demanding change. Australian harness racing is the first racing code in the world to voluntarily give up its whips and Monteith says the sport took the decision before the decision was made on its behalf. 

This happened in Norway in 1982, when the government imposed an industry-wide whip ban on the grounds of animal cruelty. “It really is going to happen,” he says of the eventual disappearance of the whip from all racing. “And we wanted to take control of it now. But we also want to project a good image of harness racing in terms of its treatment of its athletes. The whip is just not a good look.”

On 1 February, French racing re-evaluated its position too, reducing permitted strikes from eight to six. Henri Pouret, director at France Galop, said the rule change was not a reaction to widespread misuse of the whip within French racing. Rather, he said, “It is the understanding that we must do more on horse welfare and for the image of racing.” In January, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, a jurisdiction that so far has not really addressed whip welfare, admitted a ban was probably inevitable. “The net is closing in on whip use,” said Hong Kong-based Australian racing correspondent Michael Cox.

Unlike in Wally Hoysted’s 1966, in 2017 the wider image of horse racing is important to the sport’s survival. Racing has always been aware of its reputational risks, including over-breeding, breakdowns, drugs, slaughter. 

But, these days, it is more aware of them because activists are mobilised and vocal, and attitudes about the use of animals for entertainment have changed. To some of the wider public, racing involves across-the-board belting of tiring Thoroughbreds and, because this occurs before a crowd of many thousands, not to mention a television audience of many millions, it can be seen as a poor spectacle. Few will argue the whip has fast become the sport’s biggest public relations problem.

When tackled on the issue, jockeys widely state the riding whip is a tool of the trade, an appliance more useful for safety than squeezing out a victory. Eventing riders might say the same. Almost all jockeys would say they would not ride without one - and there’s merit in that. In any race, on any track around Australia, the whip is used almost as much for correction and encouragement, as grinding out a win. Most jockeys are not scurrilous horse beaters. 

Nevertheless, as far back as 2009, in the early days of the latest whip reforms in this country, Australia’s champion jockey Hugh Bowman, these days known as the regular pilot of Cox Plate hero Winx (and a noted hands and heel horseman), said tight whip rules could go too far with good intentions. “What’s going to happen here is we’re going to start hitting them harder because we can’t hit them as often,” he said. This is particularly a factor when a few strikes of the whip are the difference between winning and losing a $3 million Golden Slipper or $6 million Melbourne Cup.

Horse sports have almost always featured whips of some sort. The modern racing whip is a very padded, very lithe affair and, as per the Rules of Racing, must be of a design and specification approved by Racing Australia. It is often called the ‘persuader’, a nomenclature that won’t satisfy welfare groups, but one that describes the whip’s probable purpose - to persuade a racehorse to try its best. 

Industry participants argue that a galloping Thoroughbred does not feel any pain when struck by a modern racing whip and even the RSPCA admits it has the potential to cause less pain than a conventional crop. Nevertheless, the ethical questions remain. Is it right to hit animals in the name of sport? Wouldn’t racing survive without it?

In the United Kingdom, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) may have inadvertently carved out racing’s future. Through a program called ‘Racing Excellence’, it hosts a series of races for apprentice jockeys through the flat and jump season, one of which is the ‘Hands and Heels Series’. For apprentices with 10 or fewer winners, the Hands and Heels program allows riders to carry a whip in competition and to change that whip from hand to hand, but at no time must a rider use it on a horse to win. As might be the case in harness racing this September, the rules state it is a safety tool only.

The series was not designed to promote horse welfare. Rather, it is about the education of young jockeys. Key to this education, according to Racing Excellence, is the ability of learning jockeys to ride without reliance on artificial aids and, as such, the Hands and Heels program, which occurs across flat, jump and all-weather racing, is a qualification in skillful riding. It has been a core piece of education for a few of Europe’s top-shelf jockeys - James Doyle and William Buick, to name a few. Since 2004, the Hands and Heels series has seen 1,072 riders pass through its ranks. Nineteen have progressed to win Group races on the track.

Participation in the Racing Excellence program is voluntary, but with about 200 jockeys in the entire series each year, organisers are busy. Races (74 over the series in total) are overseen by individual coaches whose job is to provide guidance and tuition on riding, tactics and conduct, and the everyday challenges of being a professional jockey. 

The program’s ambassador, noted broadcaster, author and retired national hunt rider John Francome, says the series is the perfect opportunity for new jockeys to learn good horsemanship, instead of relying on the whip.

Parts of the Racing Excellence program allow whips in controlled conditions and, as such, the Series cannot be exemplified as a step in the direction of whip-less horse racing. It was not created to be such and nor does the BHA advertise it as such. “There is a legitimate role for the whip in racing,” says the organisation’s Robin Mounsey. “With appropriate design and controls on use, it does not compromise the welfare of horses during a race.” 

However, if the future of the sport lies in whip-free competition, as many believe it does, and as Dale Monteith does, the Hands and Heels Series is a glimpse into how things might be done in a sport shifting away from hitting horses. But racing is reluctant to agree with this. “One of the objectives of the whip review [in the United Kingdom in 2011] was to bring about a cultural change regarding use of the whip within British racing,” Mounsey says. “The Hands and Heels Series for young riders helps to further embed the culture the whip can be an aid to riding, but not necessarily a first resort.” He adds whip offences in United Kingdom racing have halved since the amendments, despite the threshold for use also being effectively halved. The BHA, thus, believes its whip reforms have been successful and Australian racing will argue similarly.

So, whip offences are down, but is that enough? Should whip offences be an element of modern sport at all? Probably not, but the reality of modern racing is it is a globetrotting sport and, until all major racing nations ban the whip, Australia will be reluctant to do so, despite the harness industry showing the way. 

Racing is rooted in hundreds of years of tradition and it may seem like a long time since Wally Hoysted leaped the fence at Flemington but, in fact, it’s been a short few decades in the 300 or so years of organised racing. 

In those decades, however, the welfare movement has mobilised and public expectations have changed. People will continue to question a sport that, despite alternative options, wants to continue hitting its horses.