David Jones, the chair of the British Horseracing Authority’s whip consultation steering group, was keen to stress on Tuesday that its 20 recommendations on one of the most vexed issues in the sport should be seen as “a package” of measures, and one that all of its members – including those opposed to use of the whip for encouragement – could support.
None the less, two proposed changes in particular inevitably leapt off the page when the group’s report was published on Tuesday: disqualification of horses when riders commit an “egregious” breach of the rules, and a ban on using the whip in the “forehand” position.
If the first of those works as intended, it will make little or no difference to the average racegoer or off-course punter as disqualifications will be vanishingly rare, not least in the major races where there are concerns about the possibility of a win-at-all-costs mentality if the penalty for a breach is an insufficient deterrent.
As the trainer Henry Daly, a steering-group member, pointed out on Tuesday, bans for minor whip offences in big races – currently between two and nine days depending on the number of strokes above the permitted level – will rise to six to 14 days for between one and three strokes over, and 28 days and disqualification for four. “If you get banned at Cheltenham,” Daly said, “you’re going to miss Aintree.”
But if something can happen, it eventually will, and while at present local stewards do not record the exact number of strokes “over” when a jockey is in breach, there have been 10 bans of seven days or more handed out so far in 2022, implying that the riders concerned were at least three strokes over. The number of breaches will, presumably, decrease significantly under the new regime but it will not approach zero any time soon.
Nor do you need to delve too far back into the form book to find a big-race winner that would have fallen foul of the new rules. Sam Waley-Cohen used his stick 14 times on Noble Yeats, the 50-1 Grand National winner in April. The turmoil and anger that would ensue if a National winner were thrown out for a whip breach scarcely bears thinking about.
The decision to draw the line at four strokes over for an “egregious” breach also has obvious potential for “mission creep” further down the line. “Part of our thinking was that if you have zero tolerance, it’s quite challenging,” Jones said. “You may go one over and just not realise it. We felt that four was definitely egregious, we felt that was a win-at-all-costs kind of ride.”
An owner – or punter – whose horse is touched off at Cheltenham by a runner whose jockey goes three over the limit would probably disagree. If we have learned anything about whip regulation over the past few decades, it is that it is an ever-evolving process. Now that a benchmark has been set, “four over” could easily edge ever closer to “zero tolerance” – an outcome that the steering group was keen to avoid – over time.
The other major change to the rules is at the opposite end of the spectrum, in that it will affect pretty much every race, every day of the week.
The California Horse Racing Board introduced the same rule last year, however, and riders have adapted well. “If you were a defender [in football] three years ago, you could get away with a lot more before VAR than you can now,” Tom Scudamore said on Tuesday. “You just have to change your style and learn to adapt, it is what being a professional is.”
Future generations of riders, of course, will grow up with the new rules.
“We feel very strongly that we’ve done the right thing,” Jones said on Tuesday, “and I think sometimes in life, it’s important to do the right thing as opposed to just doing what’s right. As a package, we feel very confident that this is going to address lots of the particular issues.
“It’s not just about giving penalties, this is about changing people’s behaviour and the way they use the whip. That’s how you really stop things, by educating people not to do it rather than keep running up penalties.”