By T. D. Thornton
New York has lagged other racing states in addressing changes to whip use designed to be more humane to Thoroughbreds. But not being an early adopter of controversial new rules can sometimes be an advantage, because regulators are able to assess what is and isn't working in other jurisdictions before making potentially radical modifications to long-standing practices.
That was the tone of discussion during the Oct. 19 teleconference meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), which conducted what amounted to a 2 1/4-hour opinion-gathering dialogue on whether or not the state should adopt new whipping rules. No new regulations were proposed and no official vote on the matter was taken Monday.
Balancing perception versus reality was a chief topic though, as it has been in nearly every other jurisdiction where more stringent whipping rules have been implemented this year.
The NYSGC heard from stakeholders who want the status quo preserved, those who want the whip barred outright, and those who would be comfortable with a middle-ground compromise that preserves safety and competitiveness while eliminating the brutal imagery that is increasingly viewed as socially unacceptable and a hindrance to growing the sport's fan base.
The discussion unfolded against the backdrop of changes that have either already been implemented or are in the process of being codified into rules in various jurisdictions. At the strictest end of the spectrum, New Jersey is banning whip use altogether, except in emergency safety situations. California, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Ontario are in the midst of introducing new rules based on strike limits, and several of those models further incorporate the manner (underhanded or overhanded) in which a jockey can whip.
Detailed explanations were very much in order, because several NYSGC members said outright that they didn't have a firm grasp of the state's current whip-use policies. In particular, the concept of giving the horse a chance to respond after a certain amount of strikes needed to be clarified at the request of commissioners.
A panel of New York's commission stewards–Braulio Baeza Jr., who is assigned to the New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks, Erinn Higgins of Finger Lakes, and Carmine Donofrio, a state steward emeritus, kicked off the discussion by outlining the current state standards on whipping.
Right now, New York stewards have broad powers to use discretion in issuing whip violations for imprudent or harmful whip usage. There are rules regulating a more cushioned construction of riding crops, but the “five strikes before giving a horse a chance to respond” standard is just a policy that the stewards adhere to and not an official rule. In order to gain licensure, a jockey must read and sign an acknowledgment that clearly spells out these parameters.
Baeza estimated that NYRA stewards impose about 10 penalties annually for whipping infractions, while Higgins said so far this year the Finger Lakes stewards have issued four.
“Most of the perception issues that we are dealing with now are in the stretch,” Baeza said. “And I don't know how else to put it: We don't have a problem. [Why are we] trying to fix something that's not broken right now?”
Donofrio agreed, and added that if New York allowed riders to only carry whips for emergency safety use, it would be problematic for stewards to adjudicate violations.
“What if the jock says, 'I thought my horse was going to prop, I had to hit him?'” Donofrio asked. “Are you going to call him a liar?”
The Jockeys' Guild, represented by a trio of Hall-of-Fame riders–Mike Smith, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano–spoke supportively of keeping the status quo in New York. The bulk of their comments focused on being able to maintain safety on horseback.
“People say, 'Use the reins,'” Smith said. “Well let me tell you something: Try pulling on a horse that weighs 1,200 pounds. And if it ain't working, all you have next is the riding crop. That's all we have. If you take that away, trust me—the game becomes twice as dangerous. If not more.
“I'm in a state right now, in California where I'm riding, [and] they have rules that are extremely strict,” Smith continued. “They've changed our style of the way you're supposed to use your crop and it's not working here. We're having a lot of trouble with it. The system's set up to fail. You're having riders being suspended [and] fined for literally, absolutely nothing, and it's ruining our sport out here. Listening to the stewards there in [New York] speak, is the best that I've heard since this thing's been going on. You guys have got it right.”
Smith said that the more humane versions of cushioned whips have made a huge positive difference in recent years, and he added that he's fine with rules that mandate giving a horse a chance to respond before further striking. But trying to administer only underhanded strikes and trying to keep count of the total number of hits a jockey has delivered during the entirety of a race is too difficult, he said.
Yet retired Hall-of-Fame jockey Chris McCarron argued that Smith is only partly right in his assessment.
“I could not agree more with Mike that the current riding crops are much kinder to utilize,” McCarron said. “However, I disagree with Mike on one point [where he explained] it can be difficult or impossible to strike the horse backhanded or underhanded, especially on the left side. I think we're talking about world-class athletes here, and any change that may happen, I think these guys have the capabilities of adjusting to change.”
James Gagliano, The Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, said that while he respects the opinions of the men and women on horseback, it's his organization's duty to take a broader view on whipping that encompasses public perceptions as they relate to the longer-term health of the industry.
“In today's world, things are changing,” Gagliano said. “To me and to The Jockey Club, we see a future where hitting an animal with a stick won't be acceptable, and certainly not for urging [horses to run faster]. We recognize that these are difficult things to change. It's going to take awhile.”
Matt Iuliano, the executive vice president and executive director of The Jockey Club, said his organization has amassed years of customer survey data to back up that point.
“We certainly didn't enter into this decision lightly, to eliminate the use of the whip for encouragement,” Iuliano said. “It was a long and painful process that was developed over several years when attempts to regulate the use of the whip had done very, very little to change public perception on its use.
“I realize it's a difficult pill to swallow because crops have been in racing for decades, if not centuries,” Iuliano continued. “But that perception of striking has changed. In the public's eye, it's something that has been a deterrent to them for greater participation of younger, new fans that may not have been to racing in the past. They see that as a significant barrier. And when we see it, that tells us it's something that needs to be addressed.
“It's a very, very difficult issue,” Iuliano summed up. “The representatives from the Jockeys' Guild, they're very informed. They have practical experience on the matter. But I think the time has come where we have to look at some of these other inputs that come into this decision, and begin to apply weight to those inputs.”
NYRA vice president of racing operations Martin Panza advocated for a middle ground approach that balances safety needs while addressing perception problems. He backed up his position by saying NYRA has been seeing increased criticism of whip use via social media feedback, and he said NYRA has been working with the Guild since January on trying to craft uniform policies that would apply nationwide.
“I think we all agree they need to use the whip. [Horses] are herd animals. They will not go up the rail through a hole on their own,” Panza said. “The jockey needs to be able to use the whip. We disagree with New Jersey with taking the whip away completely.
“[New York's stakeholders] have an advantage, because currently, you've got Woodbine and California with rules in place that only allow a horse to be hit underhanded,” Panza explained. “And so we have the ability as a group to watch that for the next six months and see if, in fact, that is the right way to go.”
Panza said the nation's top racing jurisdictions have an opportunity to set uniform policies that will have a trickle-down effect on smaller tracks within the nation's racing hierarchy. Even though some state racing commissions have already adopted differing whip rules, he said it's never too late to go back and tweak them for the sake of practical improvement.
Will Alempijevic, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that New York's stewards and jockeys are collectively doing a “great job” and that “there does not seem to be an issue from our constituents.” But, he added, the racing community should be mindful that “looking internally all the time is not necessarily the best path going forward, and we do need to look outward and grow the fan base.”
The NYSGC gave few clues at the end of the meeting as to when, how, or if it would be crafting new rules, although commissioner Peter Moschetti indicated that a complete whipping ban wasn't likely. He also said that the commission needs to make sure that “bad behavior” doesn't become “a business decision” for jockeys who decide that the benefits of breaking the whip rules to win a big race outweigh the penalties for doing so.
Panza underscored near the end of the meeting that, “The train's left the station. California is at six strikes and it's underhand. Kentucky [is mandating] six strikes, albeit overhand. Whether we like it in New York or not, we're probably going to have to do something, or publicly we're going to get attacked.”
In response to that point, NYSGC chairman Barry Sample asked rhetorically, “I've been hearing most of the day that in New York, we're doing a good job. And now I'm hearing that if we continue to do the job that we're doing, we're going to get attacked?”
Panza answered by way of example: “I think when you run a Triple Crown and you can hit a horse six times in the [GI] Kentucky Derby, and six times in the [GI] Preakness [S.], and [then] you come to New York [for the GI Belmont S.] and you can hit him 30 times, I'm pretty sure NBC is going to bring that up.”