Sport Horse Racing

Monday 19 March 2018

Once-a-year crew take whip hand

But the argument for retaining the whip is strong, says Ronan Groome

B allabriggs is a horse that gives his all. That's how Donald McCain explained it after his charge won the Aintree Grand National and a deeper look into his form provides further evidence.

When winning at the Cheltenham Festival last year, the son of Presenting nearly came to a standstill on the run-in, just holding on in the end. He's a horse which literally leaves nothing in the tank.

Nevertheless, you can appreciate why the scene at Aintree looked bad just after Jason Maguire passed the winning post on the ten-year-old. Maguire dismounted straight away and even the millions of once-a-year punters know that doesn't usually happen. The natural reaction of Clare Balding and her fellow BBC presenters was to sound concerned and the word 'distressed' featured heavily in describing the state of the winner.

The fact that Ballabriggs had just completed four and a half miles in blistering heat seemed irrelevant, as did the case for the type of horse Ballabriggs is, and the fact that all the other horses that finished around the winner were relatively fine.

Sport is all about opinion. Without the debates we wouldn't enjoy it half as much. Goal-line technology, grounding of the club, the dark arts of scrummaging. It matters more when discussing the wider context of your sport.

But the whip rule debate that has developed as a result of the Grand National is a rather puzzling one in many regards. A column by David Ashforth in last Monday's Racing Post sparked the fire, and the BHA were quick to signal that they are now viewing this as a serious matter and will be undertaking a thorough review of the issue within the next few weeks. Ashforth called for British racing, the leader when it comes to the whip rule he says, to move on and remove the whip as a tool to encourage horses; he says it should only be used for corrective measures. Opinion within the industry is mixed, with each side providing an ample argument. But the debate is as fickle as it is fierce.

In the same paper last week, there was a negative reaction in an article concerning Kieren Fallon's failed appeal to get off a ten-day suspension for putting his whip down near the finish and not riding out properly. Fallon will now miss the two Guineas races next week for not whipping enough.

And now Towcester racecourse plan to ban the whip after October 5. The suggested move has been highly criticised, with champion jump jockey Tony McCoy implying that if there was one track that needed the use of the whip due to horses refusing and so on, it was Towcester.

The Ashforth argument centres on the appeal of racing to the wider public: that the appeal of racing is reduced by the sight of horses being whipped and that racing needs to adapt. Public opinion is heading in only one direction. He also makes the case for racing improving as a sport without the whip. That the genuine horses would win more races, and the ungenuine fewer. That the stronger and more skilful jockeys would win more and the less talented jockeys who are "often the first to resort to the whip" would win less.

The latter part of the idea is fair enough. But the way it has come about is totally wrong. You get the feeling that Ashforth, an extremely well-respected journalist within the industry, may have been waiting for an incident like this to start a public-pushed bandwagon.

Is racing really so insecure that it feels the need to rewrite the whole rule book just for the cause of public opinion? Most of the people this will be aimed at will only watch racing when the Grand National is on again next year. It just seems frustrating that racing should be judged now by the once-a-year punter; that the BHA should try and accommodate this person. What is the point in changing something that people enjoy to appease people who don't really take an interest? Because that's what this is, the insecurity of racing coming to the fore again.

The argument for retaining the whip is strong. Point to the advancements in how whips are now padded and the rules regarding bans which are strict enough already. Banning a jockey for a week may sound like a slap-on-the-wrist punishment, but it's the same measure as a banning a doctor or an accountant from making their living for a week.

In any case, racing does not need to justify itself because of the hype generated after one race. This is not a welfare issue, but merely a pure publicity one.

Sunday Indo Sport

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