Racing: The shadowy world of basic instincts

The banning of three leading jockeys this week for misuse of the whip has reopened an old racing wound. By Sue Montgomery
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT must be the word itself that causes a red mist to descend over some eyes. Whip. In human terms, almost exclusively associated with punishment and pain. Birching, scourging, lashing, thrashing and, yes, horsewhipping. All emotive terms. But in the equine world, the whip is rarely used to castigate. It is a tool to guide or goad, and an essential one.

Yet no other item of a rider's equipment causes more grief and controversy. Things came to a head this week after three top jockeys - Kieren Fallon, Frankie Dettori and Pat Eddery - got hefty bans after a head-to-head finish in the Juddmonte International Stakes that had the York crowd incandescent with excitement.

The trio were judged to have transgressed the rules about use of the whip laid down by the Jockey Club, in an effort to keep the sport of the right side of public opinion. Whether the censure they received was appropriate is another question; perhaps disqualifications must be introduced as a stronger threat.

But the incident has again brought calls for the whip to be banned and even the threat of court action by the RSPCA. Six months in prison or a pounds 5,000 fine are the maximum penalties for convictions under Section One of the Protection of Animals Act 1911 for "cruelly beating, kicking or in any way hitting an animal so as to cause it unneccessary suffering."

Cruelty to horses does exist, but more often involves neglected ponies in infested fields than thoroughbred racehorses, which are among the world's best-cared for equines.

The question of why the whip is neccessary is often asked. And one of the more idiotic comments in the aftermath of York was that whips play no part in human track events yet the spectacle is no less.

That is exactly the point. Humans, you see, know all about gold medals and have the mental motivaton to throw themselves through the pain barrer. But horses do not give a tinker's cuss about being at the winning post in front of their rivals, and very few of them will run at their top speed for any length of time without being urged strongly to do so. They have no so-called will to win, but the best do have a willingness to keep responding to their riders' urgings and they are the ones we perhaps erroneously saddle with human attributes of bravery, courage and gameness.

Horses do have an instinct to run, both in fun and fear. But au naturel they engage absolute top gear only rarely. They do not push themselves beyond "the wall" when they're play-galloping in a paddock, only when they are fleeing in panic.

And that is where the whip comes in. Nearly every aspect of horsemanship concerns getting a horse to go forward, but it is always pushed forward, not pulled. In a race, the stimulus to go forward, once the first rush of adrenaline from galloping with other horses is exhausted, comes from the jockey, who will scrub, kick, shout, brandish or smack. The one thing that will produce that extra surge is fear, and three things that frighten horses are sudden pain, sudden movement and sudden noise.

Because they have no concept of glory and limited competitive motivation, racehorses have to be made to put their absolute best in. Most jockeys know when a horse is running to his limits, and will not brutalise him. No-one wants to see a horse suffering lasting hurt and the rules about use of the whip are there to stop that.

For the horse who is a measurably more talented athlete than his rivals, winning is relatively easy. It is only in situations of near-equality that pressure needs to be applied. But is the best horse the one that is happy to gallop so long as it doesn't hurt, or one that will (in human terms) grit its teeth, knuckle down to the task and prove his mental and physical toughness by running through the pain barrier?

The racing of horses is about competition, which means effort. If whips were banned horses would realise there was no ultimate sanction and would not go as fast as they could. The jockeys would feel it, the public would see it; the edge would be missing. Horses would not be tried to their limit which, arguably, could lead to a progressive softening of the breed.