Talking Horses: Haskell Stakes drama raises new questions over whip bans | Horse racing

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The stretch run in the Grade One Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, New Jersey on Saturday was packed with drama and excitement in equal measure.

Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun, the favourite and second-favourite respectively, made their moves off the turn and were locked in a duel from more than a furlong out, but Hot Rod Charlie edged left halfway down the stretch and crossed in front of Midnight Bourbon, who clipped heels and fell.

Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun were then neck-and-neck all the way to the post, with the favourite first over the line by a nose before being disqualified for interference and placed last. Neither Midnight Bourbon nor his jockey, Paco Lopez, sustained any serious injuries in the incident.

It was such an intense 15 seconds of action that it was easy to overlook the fact there was something missing. The Haskell was the first Grade One race in New Jersey since the state became the first major racing jurisdiction in the US to introduce a ban on using the whip for encouragement.

There is no immediate sign that California or Kentucky will follow suit but the 2021 Haskell could yet come to be seen, 10 years hence, as the first domino which set off an unstoppable sequence. Proponents of a whip ban – both in the US and UK – could point to Saturday’s race and insist, quite fairly, that the absence of whipping in the final strides did not diminish the spectacle or excitement in any way.

The abiding image was of two horses and riders giving their all, and not the flailing whips that would have been inevitable anywhere else. At the same time, though, Midnight Bourbon’s fall – which could have been so much worse for both horse and rider – appeared to bolster the concerns of many jockeys that whipless racing increases the risk of serious incidents and injuries.

Flavien Prat, Hot Rod Charlie’s rider, told Daily Racing Form afterwards that his “horse was lugging in a little bit”, adding: “The problem was I cocked his head and grabbed him, but there was little I could do. If I could just tap him left-handed [to straighten him up]. Every track has different [rules]. I respect every decision.”

Prat was still carrying a whip – as were all the jockeys in Saturday’s race – but its use is now permitted only if a rider feels that their safety is threatened. The potential safety implications for other horses and riders, such as those just behind them, are not a sufficient reason for giving a horse a tap which could also act as encouragement.

Florent Geroux on Mandaloun (near side) and Flavien Prat on Hot Rod Charlie race for the line without using whips. Photograph: Bill Denver/AP

It is impossible to say with any certainty that New Jersey’s new whip rule was a factor in Midnight Bourbon’s fall or Hot Rod Charlie’s subsequent disqualification. A left-handed tap might have done little or nothing to correct his mount’s drift towards the far rail. But it is also impossible to say for sure that it did not, which in turn highlights how treacherously difficult an issue the whip continues to be.

It might seem simple to frame a rule which bans the use of the whip for encouragement, but the paradox here is that if a rider is permitted to consider the safety of others in the race (which really ought to be the case), it is a potential loophole for using a whip to gain an advantage in a tight finish.

How can a rider be sanctioned or disqualified for giving a horse a crack if they tell the stewards afterwards that they felt their mount starting to drift, and did not want to cause a serious incident to runners behind them? My own view would be that the whip is an abiding issue for racing worldwide because of how it looks rather than what it does.

Its main role in a racing sense is to tell a horse that the moment has arrived to lengthen its stride and quicken for the line. Old-fashioned crops did so with the rough equivalent (in human terms) of a hefty jab in the back, but a modern racing whip is astonishingly light and serves as more of a gentle tap on the shoulder instead.

In recent seasons, instances of horses being marked by a whip in Britain have been running at one or two per year from around 90,000 starts. Welfare concerns, in all but the most blinkered of minds, rarely survive close contact with the latest cushioned sticks.

British racing is still embarking on yet another review of the whip rules, and a New Jersey-style ban has not been ruled out as a possible end result. Saturday’s Haskell, however, should perhaps be a reminder that even an outright ban on whipping for encouragement will not necessarily put the issue to bed.

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