Whipping up a storm in racing
I don’t like being angered by someone who opposes the use of the whip in racing. It’s an emotive issue and a dislike of its use is a perfectly reasonable view to hold. Albeit in a minority, there are those in racing who have called for the whip to be banned.
But when a high-profile sports columnist uses sensational language to advance their cause the patience wears thin.
So it was this week with Matthew Syed in The Times in a piece headlined: “Whipping horses is ruining racing. It must be banned”.
His column opened as follows:
“The racing industry is in denial. Horses are being thrashed with whips up and down the country, these graceful creatures being offered what apologists euphemistically call ‘encouragement’.”
If jockeys “thrashed” horses, then not only would the RSPCA intervene, but criminal charges would ensue,
It was at this point that, rather than consider Syed’s views and weigh up the pros and cons of his argument, I began to resent the way he advanced his opinion and the ease with which damning turns of phrase were used as if they were gospel.
He went on “Insiders talk about the importance of safety but if this is the true concern, why not limit the use of the whip to occasions when a horse is veering off course?”
Saying that it was racing’s “insiders” who talk about safety suggets that the sport has some sort of all-knowing inner-sanctum that wont have any countenance with abolition of the whip.
But when he referred to an opinion poll carried out four years ago which reported that 70% of respondents thought the whip should be banned, he said it included “many officianados of the sport”. So it’s “insiders” who who offer excuses for the use of the whip, and “officianados” who oppose its use, although not all of them.
There was no mention of what measures have been introduced to regulate misuse of the whip but he did say that, in 2009, Norwegian racing banned the use of the whip.
Norway’s racing regulators clearly thought such a move was appropriate within their jurisdiction, but since then more than a dozen major racing nations have not followed the Norwegian example. I presume they are not guilty of maintaining regimes which allow animal cruelty.
Syed referred to the report that the BHA was about to publish into equine welfare, venturing that not a single person expected it to call for any changes to the rules on the use of the whip. Perhaps that was becuase the report was to put forward recommendstions after a review specific to six fatalaties at last year’s Cheltenham Festival.
However, somewhat incongourously, Syed semed more sanguine about the risk of injury to racehorses, quoting the late and highly regarded sports writer James Lawton: “Most inhabitants of the real world understand that you cannot have something so filled with courage and straining athleticism, both equine and human, without a considerable measure of risk”. That’s all right then.
I wondered if The Times’ estimable racing editor Rob Wright was going to respond to Syed’s piece. Next day under the headline “BHA defends continued use of he whip” he quoted the BHA’s spokesman Robin Mounsey who said “The whip used in British racing is foam-padded and air-cushioned and it is not designed to inflict any pain on the horse if used correctly”.
Wright wrote “This is undoubtedly true”, adding that “the perception, though, of an animal being hit still sticks with a large swathe of those who watch racing”. That is also true, but it is an uphill battle to counter when the likes of Matthew Syed indulge in purple-prose to communicte their views, however well-meaning.
I don’t know if the tone Syed used was to gain attention or to advance his apparently heart-felt argument. But the view here is that it was not the finest piece of sports journalism.