Gordon Campbell on steps to reduce the racing industry’s cruelty

2889d759eea015cacec303d7b0ac0118In the season for humans to be merry, here’s some good news for the animals. In a major animal welfare move, the British Horse Racing Authority has decided that as from 9 January 2023, British jockeys will no longer be allowed to use whips in jump races in the usual forehand position. Instead, they will have to urge the horses onwards with the whip held only in a backhand grip. That change has been given less than a month to bed in – until 6 February – before penalties begin to be imposed. For flat races, the same change will occur over the month from 27 February.

So… Will New Zealand’s racing authorities now quickly follow suit? You’d have to think so, judging by the comments made in this article about the motivations for New Zealand racing’s previous round of restrictions on jockeys’ use of the whip:

NZTR’s Welfare and Sustainability manager Martin Burns said the consultation recognised previous rule changes to restrict the use of the whip in New Zealand, comparison with overseas jurisdictions, [my emphasis)] and community perceptions, which is a driver of future public engagement and investment in racing.

Talking of those “ community perceptions”… Some of us will be surprised and appalled that anyone can still find entertainment value in a “sport” where horses are beaten to inspire levels of surprise and fear that will (supposedly) make them run faster. Recently the community concerns about animal cruelty have caused racing authorities to restrict the use of the whip.

As a result, horses can no longer be flogged all the way up the straight as they used to be. In the latest round of changes introduced on September 1 2021, horses cannot be beaten in consecutive strides. The rules of racing can be found here. At rule 638(3)® we find this:

In a Flat Race or Jumping Race, a trial (including jump-outs and/or tests for certification purposes), a Rider must not use his or her whip in an excessive, unnecessary or improper manner.

More precisely:

638(3)(f) Without limiting the generality of subrule 638(3)(e), in a Flat Race or Jumping Race, or a trial… a Rider must not use his or her whip:

  • forward of the Rider’s horse’s shoulder or in the vicinity of its head; or
  • using an action that raises the Rider’s arm above shoulder height; or
  • when the Rider’s horse is out of contention; or
  • when the Rider’s horse is showing no response; or
  • after passing the winning post; or
  • in a manner that causes injury to the Rider’s horse; or
  • when the Rider’s horse is clearly winning; or
  • when the Rider’s horse has no reasonable prospect of improving or losing its position; or
  • in a manner where the seam of the flap is the point of contact with the horse, unless the Rider satisfies the Stewards that that was neither deliberate nor reckless.

Note how that last clause provides an “accidental” heat-of-the- moment excuse for non-compliance. And finally:

638(3)(g) Subject to the other requirements this Rule 638(3), in a Flat Race or trial (including jump-outs and/or tests for certification purposes), a Rider must not:

  • strike a horse with a whip more than 5 times prior to the 100-metre mark (other than in a slapping motion down the shoulder with the whip hand remaining on the reins); or
  • strike a horse with a whip in consecutive strides at any stage of the race.

That last point was the innovation mentioned earlier, and was introduced only late last year. The British racing industry stipulates how many times the whip can be used: seven times in flat races, eight times in jumps. Revealingly, New Zealand’s rules on how often a horse can be whipped apply only before the last 100 metres (five times) after which it seems at the jockey’s discretion, subject to those rules mentioned above. This seems a weaker standard, but one entirely in accord with the NZ racing industry’s stated rationale for whip use, which rests on two dubious propositions:

The racing community considers that whip use is necessary for:

  • Safety – as a measure to steer the horse and minimise potential collisions and falls
  • Integrity – encouraging due effort from the horse if used when in winning contention or achieving a stakes bearing position.

The reasoning that whipping a horse is necessary to steer it safely seems bizarre. Surely, it would be just as likely to startle it into causing a collision or fall. And advocating the whipping of a horse to inspire fear and pain sufficient to get it into a “stakes bearing position” gives the game away entirely.

Hands and Heels

Research showed quite some time ago that horses feel pain when they’re whipped. There is an obvious alternative. One could ban the whip entirely and require jockeys to rely entirely on what is commonly called “ hands and heels” riding, as this article suggests. As former jockey Danny Brereton says:

It nearly repulses me to see footage from our races in the 1970s and 1980s. You’d look at the welts on the horses’ bums and you’d shudder. The best riders in Hong Kong at that time — Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen, Frankie Dettori, Michael Kinane — used hands and heels. They weren’t bashers and they were the best. We’ve evolved a lot but we need to change more….. The whip [has] always bothered me. You can give them one, maybe two taps behind the saddle and it’s fright and flight instinct will make it react. But whipping will not make it go faster. In fact it can have the opposite effect, make it curl up.

The strongest riders use their body, use their core strength and hands and heels. Others flail about with the whip because they’re not fit or strong enough.

Unfortunately, as Brereton also says, some owners still pressure jockeys to use the whip as a sign they’re doing all they can to win, or to get the horse into a “stakes bearing position.” Moreover, the whipping of a horse during the last stages of a race seems to be regarded by the crowd as an expected part of the “excitements” of Race Day.

Clearly, it will be some time yet before getting dressed up in our finery on Cup Day is regarded with the same repugnance that we now reserve for bear baiting and cockfighting.

Footnote One: There is a sizeable financial incentive to keep horse racing alive as a forum for betting. Melbourne Cup day this year set a single day betting record:

Once the dust had settled, racing fans contributed to turnover of $28 million on the day, up 5% on last year’s figure of $26.5 million, which was on par with the previous record set in 2020.Punters returned to retail outlets and enjoyed a return to hospitality venues after last year’s Alert Level restrictions, but the active customers on TAB NZ’s digital channels (109,000) was up on last year as customers continue to embrace the digital world…

Footnote Two: This year’s Melbourne Cup saw no fatalities among the horses, a welcome easing of the deadly toll of six fatalities in the race over the last ten years. Perhaps this can be taken as a belated sign of better pre-race veterinary interventions. Good. This year however, three horses – Camorra, Numerian and Serpentine – did not finish in anything like a normal fashion. Numerian finished 73 lengths behind the winner Gold Trip, while Camorra and Serpentine were reportedly “eased over the line” and were officially beaten by 99 lengths.

By “easing” the horses over the line, Cup organisers managed to avoid the negative headlines that three horses had failed to finish the gruelling 3200 metre race. Interestingly, the New Zealand racing rules that might prevent this sort of thing happening are restricted (see rule 638(5) only to jumping races or trials. That rule says that a horse competing in jumping races or trials must be retired “immediately” [ my emphasis] if the horse is “not in contention” and/or “is fatigued” or is “distressed.” One has to ask why similar safeguards do not apply to horses competing in races held over flat ground.

Footnote Three: Long before voters put our most prominent Racing Minister out to pasture at the 2020 election, the racing industry has been in decline. As net profits decline, animal welfare measures become less affordable. So do the resources for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the rules on whip use. In late 2019, the Department of Internal Affairs compiled a report on the racing industry’s problems:

In the domestic racing industry, the current level of prize money is low and returns to owners are significantly lower than in other jurisdictions. Foal crops are declining, which inhibits future race field sizes, leading to less wagering and less revenue for the racing industry. Industry infrastructure is in a poor state. Without a significant increase in revenue and profits, the racing industry will continue to decline.

Much effort then went into commissioning a blueprint for revitalising the industry and its revenue streams. The so-called Messara report canvassed the policy options. Should the number of racecourses be reduced, should the TAB be enabled to combat the competing lures of offshore online gambling….Maybe the TAB could be enabled to launch its own range of new and competitive products – a wider array of sports betting! e-sports! fantasy leagues! While of course -everyone involved in this exercise would – hand on heart – be very, very mindful that any increase in gambling can be a Bad Thing.

The obvious conflict between (a) hiking up the gambling revenues and (b) limiting the social damage this will cause has never been seriously addressed. It is as if mentioning it, resolves it. On that score, reading the Internal Affairs background papers – the links are all here – can be a darkly comical exercise. There is seen to be an overwhelming need to boost the revenues from racing, alongside an unavoidable need to acknowledge the social harms that such increases commonly deliver:

The Messara Report recognised that the racing industry needs additional revenue to enable its revitalisation, recommending new products to achieve this. This needs to be done in a sustainable way that balances the racing industry’s need for new revenue with the Government’s responsibility to prevent and minimise gambling harm. A balance needs to be maintained between the Racing Act’s focus on revenue generation and preventing, identifying and addressing harm from gambling for New Zealanders.

Balance, balance, whoops. Question: what is the difference between “wagering” which to the industry, is an acceptable thing (providing you don’t wager away the rent money) and “gambling” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, but can be problematic for the vulnerable. Here was the DIA’s considered verdict:

In general terms, the difference between a wagering product and a gambling product is that a punter is able to draw on available information to make an informed wager, while a gambling product is based on the luck of the draw.

LOL. So… If you bet on a horse race are you wagering or gambling? The difference has legal implications as to how and where the Gambling Act and the Racing Act apply, and overlap. This can get complicated, legislatively speaking. But hey, given that the Wellington Racing Club website recently advised punters to bet on such things as their lucky number or the pretty colours being worn by the jockey, I think we can probably agree that wagering often involves something less than hard science.

Goodbye Old Paint

Songs about horses ? The best (and original) version of the standard “Goodbye Old Paint” was recorded by the folklorist John Lomax 80 years ago. An old former cowboy called Jess Morris told Lomax that he’s learned the song from a black cowhand and liberated slave called Charley Willis, who had worked on the family ranch in Wyoming during the 1880s. I love the abrasive fiddle and heartfelt singing on this rendition. Apparently, Lomax recorded it twice after telling Morris that the first take had been too slick. No such problem with take two, which is still achingly lovely: