James Lawton: Now we see the real use of the whip – to drive a horse past endurance
Monday 11 April 2011
The sight of two dead horses under tarpaulin covers was not so unfamiliar and when jockey Peter Toole was rushed to hospital with life-threatening head injuries it was another reminder that the collateral damage of a race like the Grand National can be both severe and unavoidable.
However, the racing industry must grasp that if most inhabitants of the real world understand that you cannot have something so filled with courage and straining athleticism, both equine and human, without a considerable measure of risk, a decreasing number are inclined to shut their eyes to what was surely the most disquieting aspect of the victory of Ballabriggs. It was the systematic whipping of the naturally heroic 10-year-old winner.
This is not a phrase conjured up by some impassioned animal rights protester. It is the verdict of the stewards who examined the performance of the triumphant jockey, Jason Maguire. They banned him for five days, a decision which, when set down amid the glory of his victory, was not so much ironic as a raging paradox.
The stewards said Maguire's use of his whip was excessive, a ruling which leapt beyond its usual implications when you remembered that the jockey slid from his mount in the moment of triumph and that the training staff's efforts to fight severe dehydration and exhaustion began in an unprecedented frenzy.
One conclusion was impossible to swerve. It was that Ballabriggs had been driven dangerously near to the point of collapse. It is a routine way of racing and students of the whipping debate will recall readily enough that when Maguire's brilliant uncle, Adrian, won the 1993 King George VI Chase in a desperate finish he too was suspended for using the whip too freely. The winner's trainer, David Nicholson, was indignant, saying: "It was an epic race and neither horse was under pressure until after the last. My horse has not been marked."
The issue is not the degree of incriminating evidence. It is the real purpose of the whip. Racing says, quite disingenuously, that primarily it is a directional guidance, a sort of equine version of satnav which is also equipped to deliver a timely whack to an inattentive driver. Reality – as former trainer Charlie Brooks recently pointed out in a bracing argument for the complete banning of the whip – is that the reason for its existence is precisely the one exploited by Maguire on Saturday. It is to dredge up the last physical reserves of a horse that has come under pressure, or, put another way, gone beyond the best that it has.
Unsurprisingly, Sir Peter O'Sullevan, a leading supporter of horse charities across the world, belongs to the Brooks school of reasoning. O'Sullevan talks passionately of the thoroughbred's love of racing and here recently recalled how disconsolate his beloved Attivo became when he was finally put out to pasture. Naturally, he sees the contradiction in the picture of a great horse doing what comes to it so naturally right up the point where the whipping ensues. When, this is, the need to win dwarfs all others.
Racing cannot have it both ways. It cannot claim to be merely providing the means for thoroughbred expression while throwing in a hurtful device just to make sure.
When the great Lester Piggott was banned for stealing, in mid-race, the whip of his rival Geoff Lewis he was bemused. The Long Fella didn't see the problem, saying: "He was never going to win." Now, perhaps as never before, racing has to take a rather broader view.
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