By Dan Ross
As the industry hurtles towards a possible riding crop D-Day later this month, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is proposing a compromise between the opposing stances staked-out on the issue: for California–and by extension, the nation as a whole–to adopt new rules that mirror those used in Europe. More specifically, England.
“I think it would serve our sport well,” Stevens told the TDN, about the British Horseracing Authority’s set of rules governing use of the riding crop. “It will make things cut and dried for the stewards. Instead of them generally deciding what whip abuse is, this tells you what whip abuse is.”
On Dec. 12, two important regulatory meetings are scheduled to bring use of the riding crop to the table. In Arizona, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) will look at a Jockey Club proposal that would essentially prohibit use of the crop for encouragement, allowing its use only to “avoid dangerous situations.”
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) is expected to consider a couple of similar proposals that same day–a result of the board punting for later a final decision on the issue at its marathon November meeting. The December meeting package, it should also be noted, hasn’t yet been released, however.
The Jockey’s Guild has been vocal about its support for the existing rules in California. But Stevens, who rode successfully in Europe for such trainers as Sir Michael Stoute and Andre Fabre, believes a happy medium could be found in the form of the rules set forth by the BHA.
“I literally would not ride a race without a whip, or a race where I would not be able to use it in a manner where I can encourage my horse to go forward–and that doesn’t mean punishment,” said Stevens.
Nevertheless, he said, the rules Stateside are currently too permissive.
“It made me a better rider riding in Europe.”
The UK’s rules can be broken down into these major points: jockeys can use the whip a maximum of seven times and must abide by a strict set of riding guidelines. They can only raise their arm above their shoulder a maximum of two times, for example.
In contrast, the rules in California–arguably the strictest in the country–are far more broadly written. A jockey can only use the whip three times in succession before they must give the horse a chance to respond, for example, but there’s no limit to the number of times jockeys can use it overall, and there’s no mention of raising the arm above the shoulder.
“The appearance of a hand going above the shoulder, it bothers me,” said Stevens, who added that adoption of the stricter BHA rules would have the knock-on effect of improving the overall quality of the American jockey colony, requiring them to reach for the crop only as a last-resort, and not as a crutch.
“To see young riders going for the whip at the three-eighths pole and horses being hit multiple times, there’s no place in the game for that,” he said. In contrast, the UK rules, he said, “teach you patience and how to ride a strong finish, and I think it’ll make American racing better.”
Under the BHA’s rules, jockeys are granted a Grade or Group 1 exemption only if a suspension is four days or less. In the States, however, big race exemptions are far more commonplace, and that needs to change, said Stevens.
“The penalty needs to be severe. If Frankie Dettori or any of the top jockeys [typically] get a suspension, they’re not allowed to ride at the Epsom Derby–they’re not allowed to ride at the Royal Ascot meeting,” he added. “But we see it happen time and time again here. It gets your attention as a jockey, and it makes you obey the rules.”
What’s more, adoption of the UK’s rules in California would kick-start the process of bringing uniformity between jurisdictions, Stevens said.
“The problem is, when you go from one jurisdiction to another, for a young rider to adapt to new rules in 38 different jurisdictions, it’s preposterous.”
When asked whether the Jockey’s Guild could get behind the BHA’s set of rules, the guild’s chief executive, Terry Meyocks, said that his organization is “willing” to have discussions on the matter, but any such talks should comprise all industry stakeholders.
“We want to make sure the discussions involve the jocks, it should involve the owners and the horsemen and the betting public because they’ve got a lot at stake,” he said. “It’s going to affect all of them.”
That includes the breeders, he added.
“If it changes, and [riding crops] are used for safety only and not for encouragement, it’s going to affect the breeding of horses, and what you breed to,” he said.
“Horses are herd animals, and a lot of horses don’t pass other horses without some form of encouragement,” he said, before adding that ultimately, any changes to the rules need to be done with overall safety in mind. “I wouldn’t want to be put in a jock’s position that, if you don’t use it, it could cause catastrophic injuries to horse and rider.”
The TDN similarly asked The Jockey Club about Stevens’s proposal, and the organization’s director of communications, Shannon Luce, responded in an email: “The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee recommends eliminating the use of the riding crop for encouragement; the riding crop should be used only to avoid dangerous situations to horse and rider.”
According to Eoin Harty, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, the current “status quo” regarding whip rules in the States isn’t sustainable.
“I fully understand where The Jockey Club is coming from,” he said. “It’s an awful bad visual. People who aren’t familiar with the sport–even people who are familiar with the sport–don’t want to see horses getting whipped.”
Nevertheless, the riding crop, Harty said, is a necessary tool, not only as a safety measure, but as a means of motivation–within moderation.
“These horses, it’s like you’re getting on a Ferrari, but with a mind of its own,” he said. “We train these horses, they’re on the best of feeds, the best of vitamins, they’re bred to run, they’re bred to run fast, and, when you put all those elements together, there’s a certain element of unpredictability in there, and for the rider’s safety, they’ve got to be able to use it if needs be, but not to abuse.
“I think we can compromise,” Harty added.
And Stevens’s proposal, therefore, is just such a compromise, he said.
“When you look back on the great jockeys, the better they got, the less whip they used,” he said.