Why introducing new whip rules for jockeys was a sensible move
Prioritising animal welfare is increasingly seen as key to sport’s long-term wellbeing
Up For Review ridden by Danny Mullins (centre) before sustaining its fatal injury in the Randox Health Grand National Handicap Chase at Aintree. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters
In 1977 Red Rum clumped into the BBC Sports Personality of the Year studio and a nation went “awww”.
On Friday night, Tiger Roll, the greatest Grand National champion since “Rummy” appeared on RTÉ’s Late Late Show. No doubt there were “awwws” at home, maybe some warm anticipation of the mighty horse lifting his tail to provide another steaming review. But Tiger Roll was kept outside the studio, a safe distance from onlookers, proximate only to those who handle him every day.
Nowadays the idea of taking half a tonne of thoroughbred into an alien environment such as a studio seems unwise, maybe even a bit cruel.
It’s highly unlikely similar unease existed about Red Rum’s TV gig. Everyone, including the horse, appeared happy as Larry under the lights. It was a different time, and certainly a very different media world for venting any indignation.
The Grand National is very different now too. Once the ultimate jumping challenge, it is now a better but less daunting race. That is bemoaned by many traditionalists. But basically it is another symptom of humanity’s complicated and fluctuating relationship with the animal kingdom.
Pursuits such as coursing, or animals being used in circuses, activities once regarded as everyday, are now beyond the pale for many. It is in such a context that racing finds itself under an ever-increasing animal welfare spotlight. That can be uncomfortable since the sport’s stark reality is that fatal injuries will always occur. It really is the nature of the beast, particularly over fences.
As Tiger Roll galloped into the history books with back-to-back National wins, Up For Review lay dead at Aintree’s first fence. He hadn’t even fallen. He was brought down by a faller. Whatever way Up For Review hit the ground his injuries were such he was dead almost immediately.
It is racing’s conundrum. With thrills come spills. Inevitably a small percentage of those spills result in fatalities. Currently the rate is about 0.2 per cent. Ultimately that’s for our entertainment. Only the most obtuse can pretend it sometimes feels like a less than edifying reality.
That welfare spotlight means the Sport of Kings is undergoing a rather existential struggle with itself.
Racing is risky. That is the nature of its challenge. So getting the balance right between risk and challenge, and being seen to prioritise animal welfare, is increasingly recognised as essential to the sport’s long-term wellbeing.
How best to do that is a debate that has seen British racing in particular come close to tearing itself apart.
A British Horseracing Authority under parliamentary pressure stepped up welfare measures ahead of last month’s Cheltenham festival. The outcome was near rebellion against the regulator.
In particular a 10-day suspension given to Irish amateur jockey Declan Lavery for not pulling up a tired horse before the finish crystallised a sense of division between the BHA and professionals convinced it is trying to appease a tiny minority eager to see the sport banned outright for cruelty.
In California, the very future of racing at the renowned Santa Anita track in Los Angeles is still under threat after almost two dozen horses sustained fatal injuries there since Christmas.
In a move to calm mounting public disquiet, Santa Anita’s owners outlined plans to ban jockeys from using whips for anything but correctional use. That created professional uproar and the plans still haven’t been implemented.
Even in Irish racing, traditionally disdainful of supposed cross-channel hand-wringing, never mind of the Californian variety, there is acknowledgement that welfare expectations have altered.
Last week new whip rules were introduced here to trigger an automatic stewards inquiry should a jockey strike a horse nine times or more. The limit in Britain is seven on the flat. In France it is five.
The professional response here too was largely indignant, along predictable lines of the dangers of pandering to the ignorant through optics rather than the sport standing up for itself.
There’s a difference, however, between asserting yourself and defensively circling the wagons. Such defensiveness was vividly expressed by Ted Walsh at Cheltenham when the trainer and TV pundit observed that if people don’t like looking at racing they can watch Peppa Pig instead. Not surprisingly, plenty chortled at that, instinctively aligning themselves to what is actually a dispiritingly insular and counter-productive position from a sport with so much to offer that’s positive.
Because such wagon circling is futile and smacks of not being able to stand outside scrutiny. Racing is better than that because sweeping accusations of cruelty from a tiny minority committed to animal rights rather than animal welfare are simply wrong.
As racing correspondent for this organisation arguing otherwise would obviously smack of a Christmas voting turkey. But the thoroughbred is an animal specifically bred to race. It is their purpose. They aren’t pets even if the vast majority live pampered existences far removed from the realities of much of the animal food industry.
Racing’s fortunes aren’t bound up in appeasing a vocal minority opposed to it. Rather it is assuring the millions who tuned into last week’s National that it is keeping its side of the social contract in properly maintaining the balance of risk and challenge. That means the sport cannot simply ignore changing social attitudes among younger generations in particular. For many of them a horse as a living, breathing creature is as unfamiliar as the reality of rural life. But little expertise is required for instance to feel unease at a jockey striking a tired horse too much.
Cack-handed as some of the BHA’s recent efforts in particular have been, they are an acknowledgement that racing doesn’t exist in its own bubble. Times and attitudes always change.
The sport’s core identity means it doesn’t have to fundamentally change or anything like it. But it’s self interest is bound to public perceptions. That means supposedly controversial steps such as modifying whip use are actually a sensible investment in vital goodwill.