In a bid to appease animal rights activists and to appeal to a younger, casual audience, the New Jersey Racing Commission last week adopted a series of rules that will greatly limit the use of whips – or “riding crops” – in horse races.
The original regulations drew objections from Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin and from The Jockeys’ Guild regarding limits on thoroughbred racing.
But the objections were filed in January, while the reform plan lingered until last week.
Drazin told NJ Online Gambling on Monday that most of his concerns subsequently had been addressed.
“The first plan was for jockeys to be prevented from having whips completely,” Drazin said. “Now, they can carry the whips for safety reasons. Occasionally a horse sort of ‘makes a left turn,’ and there has to be a way to correct the situation for the safety of the horses and others.
“The racing commission regulations do not shy away from the public-relations aspect of the issue.
PETA played a role
“The prohibition of the use of riding crops, except when necessary for the safety of the horse or rider, will be perceived in a positive light by the general public. The proposed repeal and new rules are of the utmost importance in adapting the industry to avoid the currently negative public perception of whipping a horse.
“It is possible that members of the industry will initially be resistant to such change; however, the proposed repeal and new rules will apply equally to all competitors, such that all race participants will be adjusting to the proposed repeal and new rules at the same time.
“Moreover, the public is essential to horse racing and the industry must learn to adapt if it is to survive. The proposed repeal and new rules allow the limited use of the riding crop, when necessary, for the health, safety, and welfare of the racing participants. Further, the new required specifications of the riding crop itself will greatly reduce any real or perceived harm to the horse should the crop be needed in an emergency.”
Sure enough, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – which picketed Monmouth Park last summer over the running of the Haskell Invitational card on a 100-degree day – expressed its approval.
“Whipping will not be allowed at all ‘except for the express purpose of … safety’ – meaning that the state has surpassed even California for the strictest whip regulation in the country.”
Drazin said that the change was a pragmatic one.
“It’s important to restore the confidence of the public, and I can’t say that some of that public doesn’t get upset about the use of whips,” Drazin said.
Commission cracks the whip
Under the adopted terms, “The riding crop can be an important tool in controlling a horse’s focus and running direction. The Commission has the responsibility to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of all human and equine racing participants and, for that reason, the proposed repeal and new rules must allow the use of a riding crop when necessary to control the horse to avoid injury to the horse or rider.
“The riding crop specifications are intended to minimize any possible exposure of the horse to harm.”
The new way forward is quite specific.
“The subsection requires that each riding crop have a shaft that is held by the rider and a soft tube that is the only portion that can make contact with the horse. Proposed new paragraph (b)1 requires the riding crop to be no heavier than eight ounces.
“Proposed new paragraph (b)2 allows a maximum length of the shaft and soft tube combined to be 30 inches. Proposed new paragraph (b)3 requires that the minimum diameter of the shaft shall be three-eighths of an inch. Proposed new paragraph (b)4 requires that the shaft, beyond the grip, shall be smooth, with no protrusions or raised surfaces, and that the shaft shall be covered by shock absorbing material that gives a compression factor of at least one millimeter throughout its circumference.”
Seeing that the result was inevitable, Drazin on Wednesday asked how this change could be sprung on the horsemen with just 13 days left on the extended fall schedule at the Oceanport site.
A commission official responded that the new rules would not go into effect until next spring.
Drazin said his main remaining concern is that every thoroughbred horse-racing state seems to be adopting a different standard for the use of whips – inevitably creating confusion for jockeys who race all over the U.S.
Drazin said he believed that complication could be solved within passage by Congress this term of the federal Horse Racing Integrity Act.
Harness racing also affected by the new regulations
Standardbred racing – such as the harness races held at the Meadowlands Racetrack and Freehold Raceway – also will be affected by the commission’s new guidelines.
But the commission laid out its analysis of the difference between the two types of racing.
“Jockeys who ride horses have more methods to encourage and control horses than do drivers, as the jockey is in close proximity to the horse and a jockey’s hands and feet are in contact with the horses.
“Drivers, who have no contact with the horse, have no method to encourage a horse other than with the use of the whip. As a result, the Commission does not believe it can eliminate the use of the whip entirely as the Commission is proposing for thoroughbred racing.
“However, the Commission does believe that prohibiting shoulder and elbow action, allowing wrist action only and otherwise restricting whipping as set forth in these proposed amendments, will protect the State’s equine athletes from harm and reassure the public that equine welfare is a priority in this State.
“Most notably, the proposed amendments ban one-handed whipping completely by requiring the drivers to keep a line of the reins in each hand through the finish of the race.
“As a result, drivers will not be able to raise their arms above the shoulder or even use elbow action when using the whip. Instead, drivers are limited to using wrist action only while, at the same time, holding the reins reasonably taut.
“The proposed amendments also prohibit a permitted whip from being used in an excessive or indiscriminate manner. Currently, drivers are allowed to whip one-handed, using their shoulder and elbow. The proposed amendments would eliminate whipping a horse using shoulder or elbow action to encourage a horse to run faster.”
The length and design of the whip also will be more tightly regulated under the new guidelines.
An expert weighs in on the changes
Longtime New Jersey horse racing writer Bill Finley – a guest earlier this year on the Gamble On podcast – said the changes ultimately will be good for the sport.
“In this day and age, how do you possibly explain to people that we whip an animal to make it go faster?
“And I don’t buy any of the complaints from the other side. You watch, at the end of the Monmouth meet next year the handle will be fine, there won’t have been any safety issues, and a sense of normalcy will quickly return.
“If that doesn’t prove to be the case I will be open to changing my opinion. I think the biggest problem here is that people hate change, especially something that is – I will agree – a big change.”
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