Racing: Last crack of the whip draws closer

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The Independent Online
IT IS less than a fortnight since Tony McCoy arrived at the Jockey Club to face discipline for abuse of the whip amid solemn warnings that racing faced a "civil war" over the issue of the stick. Jockeys, trainers and owners were said to be dug in on one side of the battlefield, and the Jockey Club just as firmly established on the other. The sport itself was about to make the dangerous journey into no-man's land.

The fact that a negotiated peace seems to have broken out instead has attracted rather less attention. Perhaps it has just taken everyone by surprise. On Wednesday, the Jockey Club decided to experiment with a series of "whipless" races early in the new year, in which whips will be carried for safety purposes only and their use for encouragement forbidden. Yesterday, the RSPCA welcomed the idea, and Bernard Donigan, its equine specialist, said that he felt sure that "everyone is heading down the same road now".

This, apparently, includes the jockeys themselves. Malcolm Wallace, the Jockey Club's director of regulation, said yesterday that when the experiment was suggested to the relevant trade associations, "I wondered if it might be seen as the thin end of the wedge, but it was warmly embraced by all the organisations."

It will certainly appear very odd when a field gallops for the line with not a waving whip in sight. Punters as well as jockeys will need time to get used to the idea. But Wallace is convinced that even the hard-nosed backers in the betting shops will come to appreciate its merits.

"When jockeys don't use their whip, whether they are young or old, the chances of interference are very much lessened," Wallace said, "because horses don't get the opportunity to hang away from the whip and bump their neighbour. So a by-product is that there will be less interference, fewer demoted horses and therefore happier punters."

The whipless races will, initially at least, be restricted to apprentice jockeys, and Wallace was quick to emphasise that "this is an educational programme for young jockeys and we haven't looked any further than that".

The RSPCA, though, will inevitably push for the scheme to be extended in due course. "Our opinion is that it would take away the possibility of horses getting injured if the use of the whip was restricted to keeping your hands on the reins," Donigan said yesterday. "There is a difference between encouragement and punishment."

In the meantime, the organisation would like to see jockeys obliged to carry modern, "horse-friendly" whips. "If it was up to me, I would have a pilot scheme and use air-cushioned whips for 12 months," Donigan said. "If it has done the job at the end of it, don't tinker with it. I keep being accused of being a crank and a fanatic, but I am not into the business of banning whips. All I want is a square deal for the horse."

There is no realistic prospect of all racing being "whipless" in the near future, and there are still riders both on the Flat and over jumps who resent any attempt to tell them how to do their job. Some punters, too, believe that "not whipping" is little different to "not trying".

The next generation of jockeys, though, should now learn that a crack or two at the furlong pole is not obligatory. Young punters, too, will not always need to shout "hit him" at the same moment. It may be a generation or more before a majority find the idea perfectly reasonable, but a gradual, and relatively peaceful, change in attitudes now seems inevitable.

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