There has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been scant sympathy for the professional jockeys who have objected to new rules and penalties for excessive use of the whip. The right of small men to hit sensitive animals for human profit and sport is hardly a case for the European Court of Human Rights.
Yet the decisions currently being made by the British Horseracing Authority have implications beyond its own sport. Animal welfare is no longer simply the concern of scruffy activists, and nowhere is the balance between animals suffering and humans having fun and making money more finely poised than in equestrian sport.
The jockeys are right to be annoyed. A new ruling was introduced last week restricting the number of times a horse can be hit in a race: seven times in a flat race, eight for a race over jumps, with a maximum of five strikes in the final furlong or after the last fence. It is a somewhat reductive approach to what happens in the heat of battle of a big-money sport, but it has the advantage of clarity.
It is the penalties which reveal profoundly confused thinking. One strike over the limit and the jockey loses his prize-money and is suspended for five days; a second offence and the ban is extended to 15 days. Within three days of the new rules being introduced, one top jockey Richard Hughes, after two offences, found that his ban would remove him from the most valuable day in the British racing calendar, Champions Day at Ascot, and the internationally important Breeders' Cup meeting in America. He turned in his licence in protest.
The winner of Ascot's big race, Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon also had the smile wiped off his face when he lost his prize money of £50,000. In the finish for the Champion Stakes, he had used the stick six times in the last furlong instead of five.
Here is the madness: his horse Cirrus des Aigles won the £1.3m prize, quite possibly thanks to that illegal extra stroke. While the jockey paid the price, its owners and punters reaped the benefit of his alleged wrongdoing. There is something odd going on here, perhaps reflecting the fact that racing is still a socially hierarchical sport, in which jockeys, however well-paid, remain below stairs.
All sports which involve animals need to get these decisions right because the pressure on them from a public which is increasingly sensitive to certain types of perceived animal cruelty will only increase. Years ago, it was normal for a Grand National in which horses died to be seen as a classic encounter. Now it is the suffering, not the victory, which dominates the headlines.
To head off future criticism, the BHA must use common sense and courage. Greater understanding is needed when dealing with what has happened in a race. If a whip is deemed to have been used excessively, it should cost the horse the race. The owners, trainers and punters will rage, but racing and animal rights would benefit.Reuse content