By Bill Finley
As a founding member of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, the New York Racing Association is prepared to implement many of the reforms advocated by that group, but may wind up having more lenient rules regarding the whip than some members of the coalition.
While the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition has never put forward specific recommendations regarding use of the whip, some jurisdictions are ready to put in severe restrictions on its use. Woodbine just ended an experimental period in which jockeys were only allowed to strike their horses underhanded and the California Horse Racing Board is in the process of implementing rules that both limit the number of times a jockey can hit a horse and allow only for the underhand whipping motion. The New Jersey Racing Commission is eyeing a rule that would ban use of the whip in any form that is an attempt to make the horse run faster.
NYRA CEO and President David O’Rourke told the TDN that NYRA will likely make changes that are not as restrictive as what is being proposed elsewhere. Instead, the proposal now being considered is one that mirrors rules in Europe. In Great Britain, jockeys can use the whip a maximum of seven times during a race and must abide by a strict set of riding guidelines. For example, they can only raise their arm above their shoulder a maximum of two times.
“We are in midst of conversations with the appropriate parties on this,” O’Rourke said. “It is sensitive. We see what California has done and what Woodbine has done. Over in Europe, they have been quite aggressive on this for a while. From our point of view, how do we take the best of each, but keep in mind the safety of the jocks? The whip is a communication tool with the horse and the jocks have been riding a specific way here for decades. There is a human safety element here when you try to change the rules on the fly. The idea will be what can we take from best practices internationally and adopt them and advocate for uniform rules in the U.S. These are rules that could progress further, but is something that the jockeys could accept.”
O’Rourke added that he believes the whip most jockeys are now using is one that does not punish the horse.
” The 360 (Gentle Touch) whip that they are using, it’s shocking,” he said. “You can hit yourself against your hand with it and you see the difference between that and the standard crop. It really doesn’t hurt, but it is loud. It makes a popping noise. We are trying to learn why they would need this whip, why are they using it, what is the safety aspect from the jocks’ point of view? That’s something you have to take into consideration. We are completely dedicated to the safety of the equine athlete and there has been a lot of progress and a lot of dialogue that has been very encouraging. But we have to consider the human athletes as well and we have to make their safety a top, top priority.”
So far as the other reforms the safety coalition is calling for, NYRA is prepared to implement rules that will curtail the use of Lasix. O’Rourke said NYRA will write into the conditions of races a ban on Lasix in 2-year-old races in 2020 and in 2-year-old races and stakes races in 2021.
“In New York, we’re going to write it in the conditions that in 2020 2-year-olds won’t run on Lasix and no one can use it in stakes starting in 2021,” O’Rourke said. “We are currently working with the Gaming Commission on how they will test for this and regulate it in terms of what the penalties will be. We are on course to start the first phase of this in 2020.”
NYRA has made no commitments to medication reform beyond what is planned in 2020 and 2021, but O’Rourke hinted that there might be more to come. He said he personally likes the rules that are part of the International Federation of Horse Racing, which does not allow for race-day medication.
“I went to the IFHA conference in France in the fall,” O’Rourke said. “This is just coming from David O’Rourke and not from the State of New York or anyone else, but I think there is significant value in our moving towards international standards.”
While NYRA has not had to deal with the intense scrutiny racing in Southern California has faced this year, it was not immune from criticism. Animal rights protestors were a frequent sight this year at Saratoga. O’Rourke said that he is encouraged that the sport as a whole is headed in the right direction and ready to do its very best to ensure the safety of the horses and riders.
“We had a meeting of the coalition on Wednesday and it was very encouraging,” he said. “There is, obviously, no league, so it has always been difficult to get everyone to work together and put everything aside and focus on one matter. What I see now is that the major players are coming to the table and the focus is on how do we run the game in the safest manner possible for everyone involved on the track. I think we’re going to get a lot done. I have seen so much progress over last six months in terms of a uniform approach, an open dialogue and a consensus to act. We had a wake-up call and the call has worked.”