The good news: Racing authorities around the world have variable whip use regulations intended to protect equine welfare during racing. The bad news: Even those jurisdictions with strict rules often struggle to enforce them, said Australian researchers.
Results from a recent study revealed that fewer than 1% of horses racing in Australia experience a “whip use breach” officially—meaning the breach was reported by authorities—on a race course. While that percentage might seem low, it still means hundreds of horses suffered illegal whip use (at least 350 times) on racetracks in just one state and territory (New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory) over a one-year period—and most of these were horses that finished in the top three places of the race.
“The data suggest that a desire to win may motivate whip rule breaches and potentially affect race and betting outcomes,” said Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney. McGreevy worked alongside Jennifer Hood, BSc (Hons), BVMS, PhD, researcher associate at the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science, to develop this unprecedented scientific characterization of whip use from a regulatory and welfare perspective, he said.
“The next highest percentage was seen in horses who ran last, which seems to suggest that the desire to not come last (or to be accused of not trying) may also lead riders into a breach of the whip use,” he told The Horse.
When regulation breaches occur—and racing stewards report them – jockeys are sanctioned, McGreevy said. Interestingly, whip rule breaches occurred far more frequently, proportionally, in metropolitan races than those held in the countryside, he said. Furthermore, many of the offending jockeys were repeat offenders.
“Of the 139 riders who were responsible for the 348 starts with breaches, 51.08% were repeat offenders—riders who had more than one whip rule breach recorded in 2013,” he said.
In their study, Hood, McGreevy, and fellow researchers gathered data from the Stewards Reports and Race Diaries from 2013 and 2016 in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. They then carried out detailed analyses of the breaches that occurred in 2013, with data covering 56,456 starts in 5,604 races, during 785 race meetings at 122 tracks.
Most of the recorded breaches (44%) involved an excessive use of the whip (more than five strikes) before the 100-meter mark, McGreevy said. (The regulations allow for unlimited whip use in the last 100 meters.) And about a quarter of the recorded breaches pertained to use of the whip that’s considered too powerful a strike, as it starts with the jockey’s arm above shoulder height.
Even so, these numbers could be much lower than reality, as stewards might not see or report all breaches, McGreevy added. He said a previous study from his lab revealed how observing whip use from a single vantage point (as is usually the case) means approximately one-third of whip strikes cannot be monitored because they land on the far side of the horses’ bodies or are obscured by other horses.
“Clearly, the whip (in Australian racing circuits) is under intense scrutiny because Harness Racing Australia has announced that it will ban the whip from September this year,” he told The Horse. “But the hope of our work is that it might improve the understanding of whip use and compliance in a major Australian racing jurisdiction and that it may be a step toward rectifying the current knowledge gap in this increasingly contentious area.”
The study, “Whip Rule Breaches in a Major Australian Racing Jurisdiction: Welfare and Regulatory Implications,” was published in Animals.