By Bill Finley
Several of the regulars who ride at Monmouth Park say they were never consulted by the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) before banning the use of the whip starting in 2021 and, if they were, they would have told regulators they were out of touch and creating an untenable situation.
“This is a really, really, really bad decision,” said Antonio Gallardo, who is fourth in the current standings. “You can't just take the whip right away like that. If they wanted to put in a rule like they have in Europe, where you can't whip the horse more than something like eight times, I'd have been fine with that. But what they did is just take the whip away. It's ridiculous.”
Beginning with the opening day of next year's Monmouth meet, New Jersey will become the first state to outright ban the use of the whip. The only exception is when a rider feels it is needed for safety purposes. The measure was approved by a 4-0 vote at Sept. 16 meeting of the NJRC.
“The prohibition of the use of riding crops, except when necessary for the safety of horse or rider, will be perceived in a positive light by the general public,” read a statement from the NJRC. “The proposed repeal and new rules are of the utmost importance in adapting the industry to avoid the currently negative public perception of whipping a horse.”
Among the eight Monmouth riders interviewed by the TDN, only newcomer Ferrin Peterson supported the whip ban.
“I have no problem with the new rule,” she said. “I think it will reward good horsemanship, and riders may have to rely upon different skills, but at the end of the day, horses love to run no matter how we encourage them to do so.”
The others were against the change and brought up a number of issues, including safety concerns, uncompetitive racing and that commissioners who have little knowledge of racing and horsemanship are behind the changes.
Joe Bravo, who has won 13 riding titles at Monmouth, said that the changes fail to take into account several factors and the whip ban will “change horse racing as we know it.” Among Bravo's concerns is his belief that the elimination of the whip will fundamentally change the way races are run.
“I am shocked by this,” he said. “This rule takes away all the competition that makes up a horse race. The competitiveness of the race will be the biggest change. How do you get horses that are next to one another to go on and fight and have a race down the lane? There will be no competition. Horses are pack animals. They follow one another. How will you get them to pass one another? From a competitive standpoint, these races will be really dull.”
Gallardo agrees with Bravo's point and says that there is going to be backlash when it comes to the bettors.
“Who's going to want to bet on Monmouth Park? Nobody will bet on it,” he said. “One hundred percent, nobody will bet on Monmouth with no whips. If nobody bets there will be no money. No money, no racing. Game over.”
Paco Lopez, Monmouth's leading rider and someone known for an aggressive style, said there are horses that will not give their best without encouragement. Take the whip away, he said, and there will be horses that will underperform.
“I'm not happy about (the new whip rule),” he said. “This will change the races a lot. There are some horses that really need the whip. People are paying a lot of money for these horses and when you can use the whip any horse can win.”
Lopez also mentioned safety factors, which has become a common refrain from riders throughout the country as more and more states look to either ban the whip or curb its use. The jockeys say the whip is a tool to keep them safe when a horse starts to otherwise become uncontrollable.
“This is going to make it more dangerous,” Jose Ferrer said. “You need the whip to correct the horse. These horses have their own minds. The whip is a weapon we have to be able to control the horse.”
Said jockey Jorge A. Vargas: “This will make it a lot more difficult when you are trying to keep a horse straight. You won't have anything to make them do what you want them to do. They know that when they feel something, it means they are doing something wrong, that you are telling them they have to do it right. This will make it more dangerous. They will do stuff that you might not be able to see on a replay or watching the race live, but the jockey feels something and you have to correct them right away. It's not like you can just talk to them and make them understand.”
So far as public perception goes, jockey Hector Diaz, Jr. said that people should understand that the jockeys are not abusing the horse when using the whip.
“I became a rider four years ago and they have changed the whip already three times, making it safer,” he said. “With the whips we are using right now, I don't feel like we are hurting the horse. It makes more noise than anything else. It's soft. Nobody should abuse the horse and nobody should hit them five, six times in a row. I can only talk about myself, but when you see me riding I never hit my horse more than two or three times in a row. I hit them once, twice and let them respond. I don't think I abuse the horse.”
Ferrer also described himself as the type of rider who does not go overboard with the whip.
“I love my horses and I never want to abuse them,” he said. “It is something you need to pick them up or wake them up a little bit. We are not abusing these horses.”
Had the NJRC conferred with the jockeys, those are the stories they would have heard. While that may not have changed the minds of any of the commissioners, the jockeys feel their opinions should have been taken into account.
“You have people who don't really know the industry calling the shots,” said veteran Chris DeCarlo. “They've never come down and asked for our opinion, which I think they should. They can't just make these rules up without asking us.”
“They did something overnight without asking any of the riders or the horsemen,” Bravo said. “How can four people with very limited knowledge of horsemanship vote in this ruling? I've seen where (NJRC Executive Director) Judith Nason said she rides horses. With all due respect, that's in a riding ring. They came in and, overnight, voted in something that's going to change horse racing as we know it.”
But Bravo admitted that, at this point, there is little the riders can do other than come back next year and try their best to make the necessary adjustments.
“I don't know what we can do,” he said. “As they say, there is no fighting City Hall.”