BHA says evidence must be priority over public perceptions in whip issue
The BHA has stressed it will place veterinary and scientific evidence above public opinions and perceptions when shaping any future changes to the sport's whip rules.
In responding to a Racing Post column penned by award-winning writer Tom Kerr, the BHA underlined its current thinking on what has at times been a deeply controversial topic, stating "there is currently a legitimate role for the whip in racing" and repeating its belief that the nature of the modern padded, cushioned whip ensures it does not compromise horse welfare.
The BHA also highlighted ongoing work being done by its first director of equine health and welfare David Sykes, who is devising "an overall strategy for the sport" that will examine whip usage, "focusing on an evidence-based approach".
In an article, the content and presentation of which provoked a powerful reaction on social media, Kerr argued that although he does not himself consider the whip to be cruel, he believes the sport's future would be better protected by banning the whip.
Most immediately he called for that change to be implemented "for all but safety reasons" in two-year-old races and those limited to apprentice or conditional jockeys.
Kerr said of non-racing fans: "All they see is the appearance of violence being inflicted upon animals, a sight that is otherwise as alien to modern life as freak shows and madhouses and to many just as abhorrent. The perception is appalling; it is of a sport that punishes its heroes."
Summing up his argument, Kerr reimagined a sport in which the whip was not used as form of encouragement, writing: "Racing would be just fine. In fact it would be strengthened. Ban the whip before the public turns on the sport and racing's image will be bolstered and its future safeguarded. Wait until it's too late and the damage will run more than skin deep. Banning the whip is an inevitability. How racing chooses to meet that inevitability is up to the sport."
During the autumn and spring of 2011-12, the whip became hotly debated, with the BHA initially imposing both major restrictions on its use and significantly beefed up penalties against those who offended.
However, following a rider revolt and the arrival of Paul Bittar as BHA chief executive, the rules were relaxed, so that instead of an automatic breach occurring when a rider uses the whip eight times on the Flat and nine times over jumps, the figures become a trigger point for stewards to review questionable rides.
Friday's BHA statement said: "British racing is fully committed to the welfare of its horses, and has a good record of continuous improvement in welfare standards. The BHA takes the lead for the sport in both setting and regulating the highest welfare standards and taking overall responsibility for influencing public perception, with the support of the wider industry via the sport’s The Horse Comes First campaign.
"In 2011-12 the BHA carried out an extensive review regarding the use of the whip. That review included widespread industry and public consultation and polling and a review of the scientific knowledge available at the time.
"It concluded that, overall, there is currently a legitimate role for the whip in racing, and that with appropriate padded, cushioned design and controls on use, it does not compromise the welfare of horses during a race, and can be an essential aid to safety. However, the review also resulted in the introduction of several enhancements to our whip rules, many of which were in part influenced by public perception.
"Since the introduction of those changes we have seen a significant cultural shift regarding whip use, and the number of whip offences have more than halved, despite the threshold for its use also effectively being halved."
The statement continued: "Looking forward, the BHA is committed to the equine welfare agenda, which is one of our top strategic priorities. David Sykes was appointed to a new role as the sport's director of equine health and welfare in March this year. He is currently formulating an overall strategy for the sport which will be published before the end of the year. This will, of course, include a section considering whip usage, focusing on an evidence-based approach.
"Across all aspects of equine welfare we are committed to research to better understand the science behind our sport and our participants, and whilst we also need to fully take into account public opinions and perception, which are crucial, it will be veterinary and scientific evidence which will be the starting point of our forward-facing welfare policies."
British-based Norwegian owner-breeder Mette Campbell Andenaes wrote to the Racing Post on Friday to extol the virtues of the rules in Norway, where whip use has been all but forbidden for more than 20 years.
She wrote: "In Norway jockeys are allowed to carry a short whip, known as a two-year-old whip in Britain, but not allowed to let go of the reins to use the whip, other than on the neck.
"Norway has had no accidents through jockeys not being allowed to use the whip. I personally believe that the soundest, healthiest horse will win being ridden with hands and heels.
"There will always be a winner!"
A WHIP TOUR OF THE WORLD
How the rules are applied in other countries
Since the summer of 2012 jockeys have not been allowed to use the whip above shoulder height following changes to Turf Club rules that maintained a policy for giving stewards significant discretion in assessing a jockey's whip use. Generally, an initial infringement in a 12-month period earns a caution.
New whip rules came into force in February, with the maximum number of strokes allowed restricted to six from eight. A decade earlier the upper limit had been reduced from ten to eight. A minimum fine of €75 is imposed if a jockey uses the whip between seven and ten times. Anyone who hits a horse 11 times is liable for a suspension.
Restrictions were first issued in 2009 and then tightened in December, 2015. Now jockeys can only use the whip five times prior to the final 100 metres of a race. Harsher penalties against offenders are now also in place.
Use of the whip was steadily scaled back over the years, to the extent that jockeys may no longer carry one, even for safety purposes, except in races restricted to two-year-olds, in which a small whip can be used.