Whip reforms in racing. Whip-free race finishes may soon be a reality for California’s Thoroughbreds. A complete ban on striking a horse with a whip for anything other than a safety reason, is one of the urgent welfare reforms that the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) is expected to pass at their board members’ regular meeting this Thursday 28th March.

Editor’s Update: Click here to read the outcome of the meeting.

The rule is one of a package of reforms put forward by the owners of Santa Anita racetrack, The Stronach Group (TSG), who on March 5th cancelled all racing and training in order to investigate the dramatic spike in horse fatalities. Since the start of the year, 22 horses have been euthanised after suffering training injuries at the track.

While the initial focus of the investigation was on the track conditions, the interruption of racing provided the leadership with an opportunity to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of all existing safety measures and current protocols, including the aspects that damage the image of racing and threaten the sport’s social licence to operate.

Social licence to operate is, quite simply, public consent or tolerance for the activities of a group or industry. In many countries today, the majority of the population keep and regard pets as part of their family, and only a minority are still using animals for financial gain. In this age, the majority’s welfare expectations go beyond the physical and survival aspects to include the protection of all animal’s emotional wellbeing. In this landscape, activities like whipping horses during a race are impossible to defend.

The growing public concern for the welfare of animals poses a particular threat to U.S. horse racing because gambling is banned in most states, and the racing industry operates under a somewhat fragile legislative exemption (a ‘pari-mutuel’ agreement). This was originally extended during the Great Depression to provide revenue to the State, but can be easily withdrawn. The US greyhound industry is a good example: since 2001 and driven by public pressure, 30 greyhound tracks have closed and dog racing now operates in just 6 (soon to be 5) states.

The new whip rule is a proactive step in matching community expectations. Under the new whip rule, jockeys will still be allowed to carry a whip for safety purposes, but they won’t be allowed to strike the horse in any way except when they feel it is necessary for the safety of horse or rider.

In a recent article by Thoroughbred Daily News, CHRB Executive Director Rick Baedeker said the sanctions for whip rule breaches will also be stepped up and, not only will a jockey be fined and/or suspended should they whip a horse, but the horse they are riding could be disqualified from the race.

If a complete ban on whipping is implemented this week, California will be the first amongst the great racing regions to meet the expectations of animal welfare advocates around the world.

Previously, whip rules reforms in most countries, such as the UK and Australia, have focused on padded whips, controlling the number of strikes and/or the way the jockey holds and uses the whip, but these rules are regularly breached.

Racing insiders recognise the whip is having a negative impact on racing’s image but argue that punters will not gamble on races won without whips. Yet at least in Australia, a recent survey found it would have a small impact on gambling revenue and the move could greatly improve the public’s perception.

Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science at the University of Sydney, who has researched and published extensively on the topic (see below), sees the California reform as a decisive step forward:

“The whipping of tired horses on the streets of Victorian England is recognised as a major impetus to the birth of the animal protection movement as we know it today. So, this exciting news holds the promise of a major landmark in horse welfare and, if the CHRB pass the rule, it will represent a significant tipping point for animal protection in general.”

Interestingly, news of this historic whip rule reform have been somewhat drowned amongst the flurry of other urgent reforms proposed, particularly race-day medication.

When compared to other countries, the US racing rules are more lenient in regard to the quantities and types of drugs that can be administered to horses leading up to and including competition day. Racing commentators and veterinarians have been calling over-medication and, particularly the unregulated and ‘off label’ use of biphosphonates as a major cause of the recent spikes in fatal, long-bone limb fractures.

Biphosphonate is commercially sold as Tildren or Osphos and used to treat symptoms of navicular disease in older horses, but the drug should not be administered to horses under 4 or 5 years of age. As the Commercial Breeder’s Association (CBA) advises, the active constituent interferes with the development and growth of bone, reducing the bone’s ability to heal and making bone more susceptible to cracks.

It looks like we will be hearing and learning a lot more about biphosphonates as events unfold in US racing circles but, so far, media reports suggest that the drug’s ability to mask pain and improve radiographic findings short-term, coupled with the lack of regulation, have resulted in a rampant ‘off label’ use in the preparation of foals and yearlings for sale, and this could potentially mean hundreds, or even thousands, of racehorses at risk of catastrophic breakdowns leading to more horse deaths and, not least, putting jockeys in danger.

Since 2017, the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) adopted strict rules, with lifetime bans for horses found to have been treated innapropriately with biphosphonates (before they are 42 months old). Australian Racing and the FEI have banned unlicenced biphosphonates although Tildren and Osphos remain in the Controlled Medications list.

Read the report from the CHRB meeting held 28th March, which was published on 1st April.

Further information:

On Social Licence and Racehorse Welfare (video presentations):

  1. McGreevy, P.D., Griffiths, M.D., Ascione, F.R., Wilson, B. 2018. Flogging tired horses: Who wants whipping and who would walk away if whipping horses were withheld? PLoS ONE. 13(2):e0192843.
  2. Wilson, B., McGreevy, P.D., Jones, B. 2018. Longitudinal trends in the frequency of medium and fast race winning times in Australian harness racing: relationships with rules moderating whip use. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0184091.https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0184091
  3. Hood, J., McDonald, C., Wilson, B., McManus, P., McGreevy, P. 2017. Whip rule breaches in a major Australian racing jurisdiction: welfare and regulatory implications. Animals. 7, 4; doi:10.3390/ani7010004
  4. Jones, B. Goodfellow, J., Yeates, J., McGreevy, P.D. 2015. A critical analysis of the British Horseracing Authority’s review of the use of the whip in horseracing. Animals 5(1), 138-150; doi:10.3390/ani5010138
  5. McGreevy, P.D., Hawson, L.A., Salvin, H., McLean, A.N., 2013. A note on the force of whip impacts delivered by jockeys using forehand and backhand strikes. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 8, 395-399.
  6. McGreevy, P.D., Corken, R.A., Salvin, H., Black, C. 2012. Whip use by jockeys in a sample of Australian Thoroughbred races – an observational study. PLoS One.  7 (3) e33398.
  7. McGreevy, P.D., Ralston, L., 2012. The distribution of whipping of Australian Thoroughbred racehorses in the penultimate 200 metres of races is influenced by jockeys’ experience. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.  7, 186-190.
  8. McGreevy, P.D., Oddie, C.F. 2011. Holding the whip hand – a note on the distribution of jockeys’ whip-hand preferences in Australian Thoroughbred racing. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 6 (5), 287-289
  9. Evans, D.L., McGreevy, P.D. 2011. An investigation of racing performance and whip use by jockeys in Thoroughbred races. PLoS ONE 6(1): e15622. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015622