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David Ashforth must be wondering how he can turn, in 24 hours, from being the darling of his colleagues (twice voted journalist of the year by them and lauded after the recent announcement of his retirement), to industry pariah.
Twenty years on the frontline of racing journalism, David set the cat o’ nine tails among the pigeons on Monday with his Racing Post article calling for changes to the whip rules. He did not advocate a ban on the whip being carried; he believes the time has come for its use as an instrument of ‘coercion’ in a finish to be outlawed.
Here’s a quote from that article: (NB, where available, links to all full articles are at the foot of this page)
“I still regularly find myself saying to the television screen “don’t hit it again”, particularly in the case of horses exhausted at the end of a gruelling jump race but also in some other situations. It is not an uplifting sight, and the distinction between coercing a horse by improper use of the whip and encouraging it by using the whip within the constraints of the rules is surely lost on everyone who is not already a committed racefan”
David cites public opinion in support of his own opinion although he accepts that there is no structured, reliable evidence other than what appears to him to be a matter of common sense:
“Public attitudes on what is acceptable will surely continue to move in only one direction. The wider public which racing wants to attract does not enjoy watching horses being whipped. It makes the sport less attractive to them and is likely to be an alienating feature of racing for the next generation of potential racefans. Admittedly, that is an assertion without the benefit of supporting evidence but if a survey of opinions and reactions to the sight of horses being whipped was carried out, I would be very surprised if the results did not support my assertions”
Sean Boyce’s response
ATR presenter and former head of communications at Ladbrokes, Sean Boyce, responded, at considerable length, to David’s article on his blog. Here’s an extract:
“Looks like we’ll all be asked to take a stance on this before long. Here’s where I stand. Calls for a ban on whip use in race riding are wrong. More than that they are unjustified, misguided and dangerous.
“David Ashforth argues (rightly in my view) that we’ve come a long way in terms of how the use of the stick is regulated in the sport. He goes on (wrongly in my view) to assert that ‘public attitudes on what is acceptable will surely continue to move in only one direction’.
“I hear this argument a lot now. Public opinion won’t tolerate this or that. We must change. There are some serious problems with this logic.
“First off there is little or no evidence of the public ‘outrage’ that we’re seeking to address. Secondly public opinion is often wrong. Thirdly, public opinion is never set in stone. It is fluid, mutable and we have a key part to play in shaping it. We should be actively involved in that process rather than merely passively reacting. Finally, the logic of this argument itself leads in ‘only one direction’ and that direction is not one that we should be volunteering to head in”.
David Yates responds to David Ashforth
Dave Yates, Newsboy of The Mirror, blogged a piece as lengthy and passionate as Boycie’s in its defence of the status quo. Here are some extracts:
“Is there any sport so insecure as racing that it wants to hand the job of rewriting its rule book to a group of people who have, as yet, expressed no interest in it?
All but the most die-hard flat-earthers within racing support the need to widen its customer-base and extend it downwards in terms of age.
But should this mean implementing such fundamental change to the sport for the sake of a nebulous sector of the population who may or may not come through the gates?”
. . . .
“There is not a major racing nation on earth that allows a whip to be used merely for steering and correction. What would be the consequences for the first country to break ranks?
“Like David (Ashforth) with public perception, I have no empirical evidence, but it’s highly unlikely that those within a state that has not banned the whip at the conclusion of races would look favourably/enviously at one that has. Despite woeful prize-money levels, British racing still manages to attract top-class runners from overseas for its best races.
“It is near certain it wouldn’t attract any more by outlawing the whip, and it may very well attract fewer. Even the most ardent opponent of the whip would surely concede the best way to approach this issue is in tandem with other major racing nations rather than to go it alone”.
. . .
“A jockey becomes animated at the end of a race not, as is popularly assumed, to make a horse run faster, but to prevent it from slowing down. If a horse slows down for vigorous hand riding but ups its game when hit with the whip, is it genuine or ungenuine?
“David clearly views such a horse as ungenuine in comparison to one that will gallop on once its jockey’s arms start to move – but many will think otherwise. I would counter that, while ungenuine horses don’t respond to the whip, it is exactly the tool – correctly used – to draw the strongest efforts from genuine horses in a finish”.
. . .
“Every person who works in racing should face themselves in the mirror once a day, and repeat, ‘My name is David, and I work in an industry of animal exploitation.’ If you aren’t called David, feel free to use your actual name. It’s a truth many people struggle with, but horses are conceived, foaled, reared and trained as the cornerstone of a huge industry.
“Of course, this doesn’t mean that our industry shouldn’t practise within a framework of rules which limit abuse and safeguard welfare. But an engagement with horseracing involves an acceptance of the view it is right for man to dominate/exploit animals for his own benefit. Fundamentally, that belief relates to food and clothing. In our case, to entertainment”.
. . .
Dave ended a very strongly argued case with a sentence that caught me by surprise in its bare honesty and I wonder if he had any debate with himself about putting it on paper. Here it is, along with the penultimate sentence which gives the ending context:
“The whip, correctly used, is an essential element in what makes racing such a great sport – it involves a pain barrier, and the aesthetic of a horse responding to its use is beautiful, noble and heroic.
“Without the whip, the white heat of a horse race is reduced to the triviality of a fun run – and that’s why it must not be banned”.
I agree with Dave that, however uncomfortable anyone’s ethics make them feel about watching the finish of a horse race, an unbidden primal admiration probably rises in the hearts of most people seeing horse and man as one graceful entity, perfectly balanced in motion, whip rising and falling with flawless rhythm and precision, stirring a surge of acceleration each time it strikes the gleaming muscle of half a ton of equine athlete.
The trouble is that such a sight is rare. Much more common is that of a little bloke, pretty tired himself, kicking and flailing at his sweaty mount, bent on keeping it moving straight however near to exhaustion it is. Ascot in June is far removed from Towcester in November.
THE BHA is conducting an extensive consultation on the regulation of the whip, which will include whether to allow its use in races for only safety and correction, as proposed in the Racing Post yesterday by David Ashforth. Jamie Stier, the BHA’s director of raceday operations and regulation, said a wide-ranging review involving jockeys and trainers, as well as the RSPCA, was under way to establish a “sensible and balanced approach” to the use of the whip in the sport.
The subject of the whip is regularly discussed at the BHA but Stier said a detailed review would look at how its use should be controlled and whether the penalty structure for breaches is sufficiently effective, not only “for the image of the sport but also the good of the sport”.
“We are gearing now towards looking at the matter further from a couple of angles,” he said. “We’ll look at it from the angle of the riders. To do that, we’ll do a statistical analysis of the riders .“It must be said at the outset that the vast majority of riders comply with the regulations as they are laid down and do use the whip responsibly. That’s not to say there aren’t others who seem less compliant with the regulations and therefore statistics will bring those people out.
“We can look at the effectiveness of the rules and also the penalty structure to see whether the necessary deterrent effects are involved.”
He continued: “We’ll also look at the wider issue – which is equally, if not more important – of how the whip is best regulated within racing for the good of it. We’ll be seeking comments and input from various sectors within the industry, some of which we have already spoken to, but we will continue to speak to a wider group as we go along, and at the end of it all we’ll draw what we believe to be the appropriate conclusions. If changes are to be made, they will be made”.
No outright mention of public opinion by Mr Stier, just a nod in that direction with reference to “the image of the sport”
So among the three main debaters – Mr Ashforth, Mr Boyce and Mr Yates – who has his finger most accurately on the public pulse?
Well, if post-Grand National ‘complainer’ responses are considered a reasonable benchmark, Channel 4 and the BHA report that the majority of complaints were about whip use rather than the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate.
Ch4 presenter Richard Hoiles reports the percentages as 55% whip, 35% fatalities, 10% exhaustion “though not a big postbag”.
Paul Struthers, BHA head of communications reports that “almost all” the 50/60 complaints were about the whip. Paul says that this was the biggest number of complaints since Mckelvey finished lame, in second, in 2007.
I have asked the BBC and Aintree’s MD Julian Thick for a similar breakdown of complaints and will update this article if and when I receive the figures.
(UPDATE: here is the response from Aintree’s MD, Julian Thick: “Aintree takes all customer comments very seriously. However we do not think it appropriate to release information regarding such comments into the public domain”)
(UPDATE: The BBC press office reports that only 8 (2.4%) of the 329 complaints received after the Grand National concerned whip use: this paints a substantially different picture and its dranw from a much higher sample of complainers; perhaps racing should be wary of giving too much weight to the complaints received by the BHA. The BHA, will, I daresay, be privy to the Aintree postbag which remains firmly closed to this blog, although I remember from my time at Aintree as marketing manager, that some post-National complaints were part of an orchestrated campaign by interest groups. Please bear this new evidence in mind while reading the remainder of thsi article which was written before the BBC figures became available.)
So, it seems, albeit from a small sample so far, that the public is not only concerned about the whip issue, it’s actually more important to them than the deaths of two horses in the sport’s showcase event. How can this be?
The instincts of Sean Boyce and Dave Yates are, I would guess, shared by a large percentage of race fans – “I’ve never heard any member of the public complain about whip use”. On the face of it, that is probably an accurate assessment. But, as ever, the devil is almost certainly in the detail.
The non-racing public – our prospective customers, much wooed by RFC and racecourses – are most unlikely to watch TV racing other than the Grand National. A small percentage of them will have gone racing at some point but their view of whip use would have been from a box or the stands – 75, 100, maybe 150 metres distant from the action.
What they saw on April 9th just before 4.30 was a close-up of an understandably determined Jason Maguire giving a beautiful big bay thoroughbred who had led 39 opponents over four and a half gruelling miles and 30 fences in Mediterranean temperatures, whack after whack after whack. The treatment he meted out was thrown into stunningly harsh contrast when he jumped off immediately after passing the post and showed such concern for a horse close to collapse.
What it reinforced to me was that perception is everything. On April first I wrote on this blog an open appeal to the BBC to cut down the number of slow motion replays of fallers at Aintree. ‘Dramatic as they are, you do racing no favours showing them’ Perhaps I should have appealed over the whip instead.
Out of sight is out of mind. Unless exposed to excessive use of the whip in graphic fashion, the public have no detail on which to make a subjective judgement. Jason Maguire, unwittingly, opened Pandora’s box. The jockey should not be demonised – many of his colleagues, blood up and within 400 yards of achieving their lifelong ambition, would have done the same.
So will the BHA take David Ashforth’s line? Should the whip be banned as a means of ‘encouragement’? They say they will consult widely. Here is the view of one, highly experienced and vastly well qualified person they will definitely consult (the words in bold type are mine):
“The whip is often, as is recognised in the rules of racing, required to discipline horses, to prevent interference between horses in a race and, to some extent, to aid steering. But, to my mind, it has a far more important function in racing: to keep a horse balanced and, ultimately, reduce the risk of serious injury even when it is getting tired towards the end of the race.
“In breeding horses to race over centuries we have selected for, and greatly enhanced, the flight response which is inherent in all horses. That response, which is driven by chemicals in the body such as adrenalin and endorphins, can be initiated quite easily in a fit, trained, racehorse by the very excitement of being at the races but it must be maintained throughout the race.
“There are many physiological changes taking place as part of the flight response and, together, they ensure that the mechanical components of the body are fuelled to capacity and can work up to maximum output but with natural limiters in place to try to ensure that the body is not pushed to breaking point.
“However, as the horse tires, many components of that physiological response wear off. The excitement wanes, the stride shortens and the weight distribution alters with the head and neck lowering and more weight being thrown onto the vulnerable front limbs. At this point, it is in the best interests of the horse to reinforce the flight response and get the horse to the end of the race in a fully alert state. The strokes of the whip, which cause no lasting damage to an animal of that size, initiate a new ‘injection’ of adrenalin and endorphins.
“Those who have heard this argument from me before will know that I like to compare this tiring state with a boxer about to come out for the last round of a gruelling fight. The jockey’s use of the stick is akin to the seconds slapping their man’s cheek and telling him to get his wits about him, keep his chin in, and look after himself.
“I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable about horses racing without the aid of the stick”.
Should the BHA move toward radical changes in the whip rules, they risk losing their most recently appointed director, the author of the above words, leading trainer and experienced vet, Mark Johnston.
That extract from Mr Johnston’s blog article, was a revelation to me. If his conclusions were endorsed by, for example, the BHA’s equine science and welfare director Tim Morris, and, crucially, an equine specialist from the RSPCA, then the whole game changes. The welfare of the horse is improved by the use of the whip in a finish.
Bring on the fat lady?
No, best keep her in the wings because, as racing found with the 2011 Grand National – perception is all and perception is driven by presentation. What racing presented to the public via the lenses of the drama-driven, but politically naïve BBC, was a rubber-necker’s dream view behind the screens (or rather above the screens) of a dead Dooney’s Gate; the tarpaulin-draped corpse of Ornais (why no screens Aintree?) and, to finish, a gallant winner whipped regularly on the way to the post followed by what looked like a flurry of disorganised civilians sloshing water over exhausted horses like some crazy band of It’s a Knockout participants.
Aintree were sufficiently well prepared to instruct the jockeys beforehand to dismount immediately on passing the post. Was this information given to the BBC ? If so, why didn’t they broadcast it while the unseemly scramble was taking place?
Having issued the instruction, Aintree officials should have had plans in place to get the winning jockey back to the winner’s enclosure in a fashion befitting the ‘world’s greatest race’, rather than having him run the gauntlet while stewards aggressively shoved photographers out of the way.
I digress, you might say, but only to hammer home the point that presentation and planning are vital to the image of our sport.
Returning to the whip debate, the BHA must not, in my view, start reacting to media headlines. Successive governments have proved the folly in that strategy. What is needed is steadfast resistance to both sides in the whip issue –pros and antis – until the facts can be established in the most credible manner possible.
Their job then is to decide if change is necessary. Whatever the outcome, their biggest challenge – the one they’ve failed miserably to meet so far – is anticipating reaction and formulating their communications strategy accordingly.
I can find no mission statement on the BHA website. I offer them this one: “Everything we do will be presented to the public in a manner that is easily understood, enlightening and aimed at changing all negative perception of our sport.”
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Sean Boyce – full article
Dave Yates – full article
Mark Johnston – –full article
The current rules pertaining to whip use
No link is available to David Ashforth’s article as it is not yet in the Racing Post online archive.