By Dan Ross
Ovrevoll, NORWAY–The Norwegian Jockey Club on Thursday played host at Ovrevoll Racecourse to a gathering of industry leaders from all over the globe, with the European and Mediterranean Horseracing Federation (EMHF) holding its annual General Assembly there, along with an International Forum of the Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR) conference that followed.
Of keen interest to many attendees was a presentation that Hans Petter Eriksen, former director of the Norwegian Jockey Club, gave concerning the country’s novel approach to one of racing’s currently thorniest issues: that jockeys are permitted to carry a cushioned whip, no longer than 70 centimeters, in 2-year-old races and hurdle races, and can only use it to avoid dangerous situations. Both of the jockey’s hands, the rules stipulate, must be on the reins at all times.
For flat horses three and older, the jockeys weigh out without the whip.
Eriksen chronicled the timeline of the evolving whip rule, beginning in 1986 when the Norwegian minister of agriculture first demanded a whip prohibition in both Thoroughbred and trotting races. An initial compromise led to the adoption in 2009 of the rules that are in place today.
Eriksen stands by Norway’s strict penalties–jockeys that violate the rules face possible disqualification. “Today, in most countries the winning horse and rider would keep the race, even if the jockey breaks the whip rules. The consequences usually are a suspension and a fine,” he said. “To me, this is not fair.”
Eriksen said that in 30 years, “there have been no accidents resulting from jockeys not being able to carry a whip,” while 30% of races are won by favourites–a comparable statistic, he said, to whip-carrying jurisdictions. What’s more, “there’s less interferences–an easier job for the stewards,” he said.
“We’ve never had any complaints from the punters,” Eriksen added. “The best horse can win the race, even without the whip.” Word from the horsemen, he said, is that horses were happier, too, with a healthier appetite after a race.
A member of the audience asked whether the problem isn’t the instrument itself but a lack of education about the modern cushioned whip when compared to the much harsher sticks of before. He described the issue of the whip as a 19th century word in a 21st century environment.
Eriksen replied: “Explain that to people coming in from the outside” of racing.
The morning session was devoted to EMHF matters, though a number of attendees gave presentations with not just European but global implication, too. Simon Cooper, representing the European and African Stud Book Committee, discussed the rapidly growing problem of genetic engineering, the research around which has accelerated in the last five to 10 years.
“It is becoming widely accepted,” Cooper said, pointing out that gene engineering kits can be purchased online. “It is no longer a Frankenstein–it is something that is being developed every day,” he added. But he warned that while manipulated genes are identifiable, there’s currently no viable detection methodology.
“What we don’t yet have is a test to easily detect,” he said. When such a test is to hand, “we will then start, from a stud book point of view, start screening all new stallions, first season sires, and mares. That’s the projected approach.”
There are two types of gene therapy “that provide a major threat” to horse racing, Cooper said. Transgenesis is the transfer of genes from one to another, while gene manipulation is the manipulation of the heritable genome that exists in that horse. According to the latest research, the most likely point at which gene editing will occur will be between conception and birth, he said. “Not to say that’s the only time, but that’s the most likely time,” he added.
Once DNA has been changed, Cooper said, those changes are passed on generationally, which leads to what he framed as a worst-case scenario: the retrospective discovery of a “super-sire,” one who had sired sires, that had been genetically modified. “You’d have to exclude not only that horse but all its foals, all the sires that have come from that stallion–that is the level of problem we face,” he said.
Brant Dunshea, chief regulatory officer for the British Horse Racing Board, discussed the implications of illegal betting, and the massive loss of potential revenue to the sport.
Late last year, Dunshea was invited to join the Asian Racing Federation’s (ARF) anti-illegal betting taskforce, which had taken a two-year dive into the problem. “To say I was shocked by what I learned would be an understatement,” he said.
The definition of illegal betting, Dunshea said, is that which might involve “elements of corruption,” as well as “perfectly legal” betting that happens in an unregulated environment. “For example, it may be an operation that is set up off-shore that may not be contributing to the sport, and is not under direct regulatory control of a government or a racing authority,” he said.
Earlier in the EMHF meeting, the issue of statutory funding of the sport through betting was raised, with some member countries receiving little to no betting revenue through a statutory mechanism. “For all of us, we can worry about regulation and statutory funding, but all of these things are causing this problem [of illegal betting],” said Dunshea, warning of the way regulatory encroachment can push gamblers to illegal betting avenues where the returns can be higher.
“Look at the liberalization of the market in Scandinavia. Dennis [Madsen, head of racing at Svensk Galopp] just talked about a 10% reduction in turnover. I can tell you now, some of that turnover is just gone from Sweden, but it’s put back somewhere else,” Dunshea added. “They lose the revenue, and it goes to an environment where you have no integrity control or regulation.”
After illustrating the findings of a 2018 ARF white paper–which explores in numbers the sheer enormity of the problem in six countries, including Australia–Dunshea made a plea for EMHF members to work with Great Britain as it seeks to replicate the ARF’s research.
“We don’t really know what the size of the impact is,” he said. “But we’re certain of one thing–it will be enormous.”
Denis Egan, chief executive of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, then presented recent findings into jockey safety and welfare, include their mental health. Indeed, research from the UK shows that nearly 87% of jockeys are currently experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression, or have over the last 12 months.
“We did a study in Ireland, and two in three jockeys aged 18 to 24 displayed symptoms of depression,” he said. “One of the difficulties out there is that jockeys will not access support mechanisms which are in place simply because they want to feel strong in front of their peers.”
Egan made a particular point of highlighting the concussion research and safety protocols that other sports have conducted and implemented, and the glaring implications of this issue on racing’s governing bodies.
“If you see the [National Football League] in the States, they’ve been sued by players” who have suffered the long-term impacts of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), he said. “It is critical that we have a protocol in place to deal with concussion.
The bulk of the afternoon was devoted to IFAR, the racehorse aftercare work that various people are doing around the world, and ways in which the industry can improve its approach to looking after the horse when it’s racing career is over.
Jockey Club president and IFHA vice chair, Jim Gagliano, stressed how important it was for the industry to champion success stories in this arena.
As an example, he pointed to the content produced by America’s Best Racing, a Jockey Club-owned fan-development venture. “Among the most popular that we produce and send out on social media are the good news stories about aftercare,” he said.
Andrew Chesser, IFHA secretary general, discussed the importance of racehorse traceability. He singled out Australia, where 70% of ex-racehorses continue their careers in the equestrian world.
“The owners’ agents, typically the trainers, they complete an online form on the owners’ behalf, and Racing Australia receives approximately 7,000 notifications on retirement each year,” he said. “Various strategies have been put in place to drive compliance, including email notification if a horse hasn’t raced for a period of over two years.”
Systems like retirement notifications, said Chesser, requires owners or their agents to be “transparent” about what happens to the horse. “Every jurisdiction should be able to answer the question: what happens to the horses when they finish racing?” he said. “An inability to provide an accurate and up-to-date and clear answer to that question will fall far short of society’s expectations of the regulator.”
Di Arbuthnot, IFAR chair and chief executive of Retraining of Racehorses, outlined an aftercare toolkit, a roadmap of sorts for authorities to follow when implementing rehoming strategies for ex-racehorses.
An integral part of this system, said Arbuthnot, is in stimulating demand for the Thoroughbred when they may not be the most fashionable horse available. One way to do this is to stress their versatility, and their proven adaptability to a wide array of careers.
One of these possible career paths is in the treatment of humans with psychiatric disorders–something that Dr. Niki Markogianni a neurologist-psychiatrist, discussed during her presentation.
Markogianni uses ex-racehorses at her institute in Greece, and she explained that they are innately and uniquely gifted when it comes to “figuring out the pathway” between the conscious and the unconscious in her patients.
Nor is the task restricted to only certain types of racehorses, she said. Typically, it takes a horse two years to settle down into the therapy routine. But one particularly troublesome filly, said Markogianni, took to the role with relish, and was ready after only six months. “Everyone has their own personality,” she said, in explanation.