By Dan Ross
It was Constitution Day last Friday when racing was held at Norway’s Øvrevoll racecourse, a leafy green little country track nestled on the outskirts of Oslo, the famous Holmenkollbakken ski jump soaring high in the far distance.
Constitution Day commemorates the signing in 1814 of the Norwegian Constitution, declaring the nation a sovereign entity–Norway, at the time, had been ceded by those sneaky Danes to the king of Sweden (and it would take Norway until 1905 before they finally became an independent nation, but that’s a story for another time).
On this day every year, droves of Norwegians throw on their glad rags–lavish folk costumes called bunad. And there was bunad aplenty at Øvrevoll last Friday. But this wasn’t perhaps the most eye-catching memento from the day. Nor was it the large Ikea bags turned hay nets, into which the rotund little pony taking families on cart rides around the track would routinely disappear.
No, for this export from California–where the authorities are currently debating whether to restrict use of the whip for safety purposes only–perhaps the most conspicuous turn of events was the sight in race after race of jockeys driving their horses towards the finish line with both whip-less hands on the reins, that dull “thwack, thwack, thwack” absent from the end-of-race soundtrack. A sight unique to this country for quite some time.
It was back in 1986 that the Norwegian minister of agriculture first outlawed use of the whip in both Thoroughbred and trotting races. This didn’t go down too well with some of the horsemen, however, who pushed back against the measure, and a compromise was reached allowing jockeys to carry a shortened version of the whip, to be used for safety purposes only.
In 2009, a further amendment put into place the rules that exist today, allowing jockeys to carry a whip in 2-year-old and jump races only. In flat races for 3-year-olds and up, no whip may be carried. Both of the jockey’s hands must be on the reins at all times, and if jockeys violate these rules, they can face a possible fine, ban and disqualification.
“We’ve never had any complaints from the punters,” Hans Petter Eriksen, former director of the Norwegian Jockey Club, told a gathering of leading industry figures from around the world the day before. “The best horse can win the race, even without the whip.”
Eriksen also said that in 30 years, “there have been no accidents resulting from jockeys not being able to carry a whip;” a statement with which the Øvrevoll stewards all agreed, when they stayed behind after the last race to explain the mechanics of policing the rule to the TDN.
Helge Byrgin, one of those stewards, added that anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been “fewer serious injuries to horses during the races than there were before.”
The jockeys can use the whip on the shoulder to avoid a dangerous situation, said Kristin Grundy, head steward, but the action must be taken only when the horse visibly needs correction–it cannot be used to correct a horse in anticipation of wrongdoing.
Most races are for 3-year-olds and up, where jockeys aren’t permitted to carry a whip at all. Nor can they use their reins as a substitute. But that doesn’t stop the jockeys from trying; just that afternoon, one was suspended for using his reins as a whip. Still, the stewards all agreed that their jobs had gotten easier since 2009, when the whip was banned entirely in most races.
“It’s not always easy when they have the whip,” said steward Nicholas Cordrey. “It’s a lot easier when they don’t.”
Fines range from around $230 to $570US for an infraction, and stewards also have the option of disqualifying a horse–not that the rules are broken too often, anyway. The stewards said it occurs on average 3 times a year–out of between 240 and 250 races run annually–and they added that no horses were disqualified in 2018.
Helpful to the stewards, undeniably, is how the fields typically aren’t glued together tight. Indeed, as they enter the straight, the horses fan wide across the track. This phenomenon, they said, has less to do with the whip ban (as some suggest), and more to do with Øvrevoll’s configuration: as undulating as a swelling ocean, narrow tracks, and tight turns that would give a greyhound vertigo.
“It’s not a bend, it’s a corner,” said steward Nicholas Cordrey of the turn into the straight. “And if they can come around that corner without a whip, they can come around nice big bends without one.”
One of the concerns raised in California about the proposed whip rule is that it could lead to more instances of non-triers. “We discuss it regularly when a horse is behind and whether the rider put the horse enough in a race,” said Cordrey. “But I think that happens just as much when they can use the whip.”
Another concern in California is that a whip ban would throw a wrench in punters’ handicapping algorithms. But the form, said Grundy, holds up well when horses who run regularly in Sweden and Denmark (where the whip is still largely permitted) come to Norway, and vice versa.
Interestingly, while the whip ban extends to the morning, trainers still use it regularly during training, but are rarely, if ever, reported to the stewards, they admitted. “I have never heard of anybody being reported,” said Grundy.
A little earlier in the afternoon, I checked in to gauge the temperature in the jock’s room, and, as expected, the warm enthusiasm shown by those policing the rules wasn’t mirrored by those being policed.
“What use is that to the jockey?” complained Per-Anders Graberg, a veteran of the jock’s room, about the shading in the rules where jockeys can only correct a horse when it visibly needs correcting, and not before. “If they’re going to duck out, you want to whack them before they do it. Now you’ve got to let the horse duck out and possibly hit someone and then whack it. It’s too late.”
“I always see things happening that you could have avoided carrying the stick,” he added. “They always say, ‘nobody broke their neck the last 10 years.’ It doesn’t have to go that far. Every year you see things that could have ended up better if you had the stick to correct the horse.”
Roughly six or seven years ago, said Graberg, a horse he was riding hung out during a race and broke through the outside rail, leaving the jockey with a broken rib. “I’m pretty sure if I had a stick I could have made the turn,” he said.
(For their part, the stewards have a different reading of this incident, and place a lot of the blame on the narrow nature of the course).
Jockey Jan-Erik Neuroth, son of one of Norway’s most illustrious trainers Wido Neuroth, told his own story, of an incident concerning a 2-year-old having its first run. “It started broncking, started to turn, I gave it two on the shoulder,” said Neuroth. “That’s it, I got two days on the ground [suspension], big fine,” he added.
Which explains why a number of jockeys in Norway now voluntarily choose to leave the whip back in the jock’s room when riding 2-year-olds. “It’s too big a risk, really,” said Graberg, about the temptation to reach for the whip and the potential consequences of doing so.
“We can’t afford to lose big races,” jockey Oliver Wilson chimed in.
While the stewards and the jockeys are polarized on this issue, other horsemen enjoying the hazy spring Oslo sunshine that afternoon appeared ambivalent. Indeed, in a turn of phrase that will ring familiar to any trainer in the U.S., Neuroth expressed greater frustration with the lack of regulatory uniformity between the Scandinavian countries where his horses perform.
Madeleine Brixner owns a 6-year-old mare called Swan Black, in training with Øvrevoll-based Niels Peterson. While she would prefer the jockeys to at least carry the stick, “I understand the public perception,” she said.
As for the general race-going public, the consensus was clear: don’t bring the whip back.
“I think it’s bad,” said Anders Lien, a racing neophyte, who had never seen the whip used in a race until he watched recently the Netflix series “7 Days Out,” which chronicled the lead up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby. “I don’t see the need for it,” he said.
With that in mind, I asked the Øvervoll stewards one piece of advice for their American counterparts, in the event California goes the way of Norway, and jockeys will only be able use the whip for safety purposes only. Collectively, they replied, almost in unison: take the whip completely away.