Observations From a Whip-Free Weekend at Monmouth

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Jockeys walk out to the track for Monmouth's first race Friday | Bill Denver

The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

We will need a bigger sample size before being able to fully evaluate how Monmouth's experiment with whip-free racing has fared. But this much is certain: Three days in and after hysterical fomenting from the pro-whip side of the argument, the whip-less races amounted to a big nothingburger. That is to say there were no incidents, no major form reversals, no mass boycotts from the horseplayers, etc. Perhaps this was just round one in what figures to be a long, drawn-out battle that will eventually extend beyond Monmouth Park, but the anti-whippers have broken sharply from the gate and assumed a clear lead down the backstretch, all under hand urging.

Other thoughts:

(*) Handle-wise, Monmouth did not get off to a good start, but that was to be expected because of the rain, the slop, scratches and the lack of grass racing. On Sunday, the handle was $2,645,700 over 11 races, off considerably from the $3,924,465 they bet on the same day in 2019 when there were 12 races. On Saturday, they bet $2,941,677 over 12 races. On the same day in 2019, the handle was $5,891,308 for 13 races. (There were no races held over the Memorial Day weekend because of the COVID-19 shut down.)

That could mean that some bettors were reluctant to play races where no whipping was allowed, but it's more likely that the horrendous weather cost Monmouth any chance of having a good handle. If the sun shines next weekend, that would provide a clearer pictures vis a vis the handle and the whip ban's impact.

(*) Some had predicted that some owners and trainers would refuse to run at Monmouth because of the whip ban. That simply wasn't the case. You don't attract 107 entries for a 12-race card, like they did Saturday, if people are staying away. When asked if the whipping rules were having any impact on field size, racing secretary John Heims said of the Saturday card: “It's not a factor and it wasn't a factor for Friday's card either.”

(*) If whipping isn't OK in Thoroughbred racing in New Jersey, why is it OK in harness racing? After all, the whip ban was meant to address perceptions that horse racing is cruel to the animal. Harness drivers are very limited so far as what they can do with the whip and can no longer raise their arms above their shoulders and whack the horse. Still, if whips can't be tolerated at Monmouth then they shouldn't be tolerated at the Meadowlands.

(*) There's no doubt that other state racing commissions are watching the Monmouth races intently. If the entire meet goes as well as the first weekend did, expect other states to fall in line with whip bans of their own. Next up will almost certainly be California. In a 2020 interview with the TDN, here's what the California Horse Racing Board Executive Director had to say: “I don't think jockeys should carry crops. It's not necessary. To me, it's not a safety issue. Ten years from now, if jockeys are still carrying riding crops, we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. This is a national issue and I think eventually everybody will be on board.”

(*) Some predicted that the whip ban would favor frontrunners because closers couldn't be urged on by their riders with their whips. That didn't happen. With races being run over a very sloppy surface Sunday, speed horse did seem to have an advantage. But on Friday, when the surface was fast for the first race, the track was kind to off-the-pace horses. The winner of the first race closed from last and the winner of the second race was fifth out of six early. Both were running in the middle of the track in the stretch.

(*) The races were very formful. Over the three days, 15 of the 28 races were won by the favorite, for a strike rate of 53.6%. The entire time, only one horse paid more than $20. While that obviously had something to do with the small fields, it was also pretty strong evidence that a whip ban does not lead to strange results.

(*) Will the whip ban cause a reshuffling of the deck when it comes to the jockeys? Riders who rely more on their finesse and smarts rather than brute strength should do better. It's worth noting that Dylan Davis (3-for-8, 38%) got off to a big start. Riding for many of the top New York outfits, like Chad Brown, Davis could have a huge meet. These were Davis's first mounts since a Mar. 20 spill.

(*) While there were no serious incidents on the racetrack, there was at least one example where the lack of a whip could have caused a difference. In Saturday's sixth race, Charge Account (Take Charge Indy) clearly pulled herself up before the wire. But she was so far in front that it didn't matter. She won by 7 1/4 lengths. But what if she had done the same while battling another to the wire and lost? If he was able to use a whip, could jockey Nik Juarez have gotten the filly to get her mind back on business?

(*) It was interesting to see that so many riders declined to carry the whip, which is still allowed for safety purposes. Those jockeys clearly didn't want to take any chance that they'd revert to old habits and hit the horse, not when doing so would result in a $500 fine and a five-day suspension. It changed over the weekend and by Sunday, the majority of riders were carrying the whip. But, from a perception standpoint, the damage had already been done. If whips are so necessary for safety reasons, how can it be that so many riders chose not to use one when one was available to them?

(*) After all their fussing and saber-rattling, the Monmouth jockeys showed that they're not a unified group. Only two jockeys–Joe Bravo and Antonio Gallardo–declined to ride. It will be interesting to see if either Bravo or Gallardo have a change of heart and return.

(*) Yes, this was a difficult, volatile situation, but Monmouth's threats of suing jockeys and banning anyone who refused to ride, were, to say the least, over the top.

(*) Jockey Christian Navarro won with his first two mounts on Friday. It marked the first time he had ridden since July 26, 2019, when he rode at Camarero in Puerto Rico.

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