Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses the decision by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board to bring in a set number of strikes of the whip jockeys can use in Irish races.

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The IHRB have a well-earned reputation of being more reactionary than pioneering in the changes they make to the sport in Ireland. Thus, it came as a major surprise on Friday morning when they announced from completely out of the blue that they are planning to introduce a set number of whip strikes that are permitted in Irish racing.

British racing introduced a highly-controversial set limit on whip strikes in 2011, the merit of which continues to be debated over seven years later. In contrast with Britain where there has long been an ongoing discussion inside and outside the sport about the appropriateness of the use of the whip in horse racing, it has never been an issue of note in Ireland. 

Personally, I can’t ever recall use of the whip in Irish racing being debated in the mainstream media or indeed within the Irish racing media. It is seen as being part and parcel of horse racing. 

That is what makes this decision so strange. The Turf Club, as it was then, resisted pressure to follow the BHA in introducing a strike limit in 2011. By and large, they were applauded for that, with it being widely perceived as being a victory for common sense. So, why now?

Rather than being driven by concerns about public perception as was the case in Britain, it has been suggested that the thought to introduce a whip strike limit in Ireland has come about in response to an increase in whip offences in the last year. However, the IHRB really need to think very carefully about this before they act, as they are in danger of firing a shotgun to try and kill a fly.

The fundamental point that is so important when it comes to the whip in horse racing is that it is not a welfare issue. It does not hurt horses when used correctly. The RSPCA agree with this and there is no credible scientific evidence that concludes otherwise. Thus, introducing a limit on its use creates a contradiction that is difficult to rationalise.

There are many ways that the IHRB could go about reining in what they feel is unsatisfactory use of the whip, but a one-size-fits-all strike limit isn’t the way to do it. Not all strikes are equal and every situation is different. Jockeys should be encouraged to use their stick as a last resort when they need it most to get maximum effort from their mounts, but every horse is different.

The thought that a jockey should have to put down his whip on a horse that is clearly responding generously to his every call for fear of breaking a strike limit is fundamentally wrong. Jockeys should not be punished for doing their best on a horse that is responding to their urgings.

Policing the whip in this manner in Britain has led to an unhealthy focus on the issue. Having a black-and-white rule leads to observers counting the strikes with little consideration for context, often making the whip use the subject of discussion rather than the race. Indeed, it has led to ridiculous scenarios where rides that have been widely lauded attracting whip bans.

For example, Patrick Mullins’s winning ride on Rathvinden in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last year that was named Ride of the Year at the McCoy Awards resulted in him being banned for six days for his use of the whip. Similarly, Richard Johnson’s stirring ride on Native River to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year saw him banned for seven days for whip use.

The rule change in Ireland has yet to be confirmed and the IHRB would be well advised to consider alternatives before confirming any new rules. Rather than quantities of strikes, personally I would put much more emphasis on policing whether the horses are being given enough time to respond, that the stick is being applied to the correct area with the correct technique and that horses are not struck when out of contention for the placings.

I would also suggest increasing the punishments for offenders and coming down especially hard on repeat offenders. That would be likely to solve the problem the IHRB are seeking to address without fundamentally changing how the whip is used and viewed.

Considering this really is only a very minor issue in Irish racing, going down the road of a limit on whip strikes just seems an unnecessarily harsh and rigid change that could create far more problems than it solves.

For all their shortcomings, the IHRB have regularly been commended in this space and others for their common-sense driven and pragmatic approach to many issues in the sport, certainly when compared to their British counterparts. One can only hope that common sense prevails on this issue.

Kevin Blake
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