Racing: New whip to keep pain level in check

There is still a sting to the latest development in jockeys' aids but none of the brutality that marked some of its predecessors. By Sue Montgomery
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN tell a man by his whip, apparently, and not just in the S & M division. Among the items on display at a press conference yesterday to introduce a newly designed state-of-the-art riding stick were assorted horse persuaders through the ages.

The whip used by the legendary Fred Archer, rider of 2,748 winners between 1870 and 1886 and nicknamed The Tinman for his love of money, was wire- thin and capable of opening a horse's flesh which, on occasions, it did. But even it was eclipsed for sheer brutality by the yard of thwacky leather, topped by a heavy, sharp-edged metal ferrule, employed by Maunsell Richardson when he won the 1873 Grand National on Disturbance for a serious punting owner.

By contrast, Steve Donoghue, 10-times champion jockey during the 1910s and 1920s and a superb horseman with a great empathy with the animals he rode, carried a whip that was short, light and stubby by those earlier standards. And, it has to be said, by today's as well.

Whether or not that is a reflection on modern standards of jockeyship is open to debate. What is not is that misuse of the whip, perceived or actual, has the potential to do more damage to racing than any lack of funding or political bickering.

Many within racing claim that animal-rights organisations hold too much sway, but public opinion on the treatment of animals has to be taken into account. One of the catalysts as far as racing is concerned was the disgraceful fillettings meted out at the Cheltenham Festival 20 years ago, since when the Jockey Club have clamped down with more and tighter rules on use of the whip.

But it would be cynical to suggest that it is only public opinion that has prompted such progress. Most people professionally involved with racing - jockeys, trainers, some owners - actually do like horses and do not wish to see them hurt unnecessarily. Given that whips are needed to encourage horses to put in some effort in a race it seemed that there might be a better design, a whip that would sting in the instant and produce that extra surge, but leave no lasting surface mark or invisible underskin bruising.

Such an implement was unveiled yesterday, with the approval of the Jockey Club and the RSPCA and the blessing of some of the horse world's senior figures. Its trade name, Aircush, gives a clue to its construction, a fibreglass spine with a rubbery cover and a cushion of air between. It is the invention of 83-year-old Jim McMahon, a point-to-point owner whose crusade started when he saw a runner bleeding from weal marks.

Animal welfare is a different, less cranky, matter than animal rights and, as Lord Oaksey pointed out yesterday, the welfare of the horse is paramount in any equestrian sport. "Even more than money," he said.

"And though there may be further improvements to be made, in the opinion of many experienced horsemen this is the most far-reaching whip design ever. The claim made is that it hurts less than a normal whip and does less damage."

If the results of a fairly basic experiment are a guide this is probably true. Sheets of glass laid beneath felt shatter when struck with a conventional whip, but remain intact when the Aircush is employed.

How the whip - which is being aimed at the wider horse world as well as racing - is received remains to be seen. It is rather odd, even clumsy, looking, but it does not appear to have done any harm to the career of Mick Fitzgerald, the only jockey using it full-time. Nick Skelton, one of the country's best, most forward-thinking showjumpers and a role model for thousands of youngsters, has given it approval. Sir Peter O'Sullevan, another in the van where horse welfare is concerned, has insisted, in his role as owner, that jockeys on his horses carry it. But it is noticeable that no endorsement has come from a top Flat rider.

Racing has many facets: a sport, an industry, one man's living, another man's hobby and the betting world's lifeblood. It is also a test-bed for veterinary medicine and safety in other equestrian sports, as Formula 1 is to motoring.

But because it is at the sharp end there can be a side which is not always to racing's credit. It is the only horse sport where, to gain victory, it is sometimes necessary to stimulate that deep, primeval equine fear- response by applying sudden sharp pain - simulating the big cat's claw - to the backside. It is the sport with the most potential to really hurt a horse in its public execution.

A whip will always do damage in uneducated, insensitive hands but if this one can provide limitation it must be a piece of R&D worth passing on.