British racing’s latest attempt to impose once-and-for-all rules on use of the whip began on Monday at Catterick, Plumpton and Wolverhampton, with the hope that the fresh toughening of the regime will not generate the same controversy and negative publicity as the last line-in-the-sand moment in the autumn of 2011.
That prompted threats of an all-out strike by jockeys and led to Richard Hughes briefly handing in his riding licence in protest, while Christophe Soumillon was fined his cut of the prize fund – about £55,000 – for going one stroke over the limit of seven in the Champion Stakes at Ascot.
The process of sanding down the rough edges of the rules began almost immediately. The strike threat was averted, Hughes went on to win the championship three years running from 2012 and Soumillon got his money back. But it was all so bruising and humiliatingly public it is perhaps no surprise that this time around the tweaks to the new regime started before it had even come into force.
The latest rules are the result of an extended consultation process on the use of the whip, which included jockeys, trainers and animal welfare groups. An initial intention to ban use of the whip in the forehand position was dropped last month, after many senior riders expressed concerns.
A proposal to double the current penalty for use above shoulder height has also been dropped, with suggestions from some riders, including Harry Cobden, Paul Nicholls’s stable jockey, they had been warned by officials, during a “bedding-in” period for the new rules,extended bans for winning rides would have been received had they occurred once the new regime was in force.
The British Horseracing Authority disputes the numbers attached to those claims – it was allegedly a 24-day “ban” in Cobden’s case after his win on Il Ridoto at Cheltenham’s Trials day meeting, which would be enough to rule a rider out of Aintree if they offend at the Cheltenham Festival. The regulator also points out that breaches will now be considered by a new Whip Review Committee, not the stewards on the day, and published figures from the bedding-in period that show a significant number of potential breaches in the early weeks dropping markedly before Monday’s full implementation.
However, there has been no shift on the timing of the new rules’ introduction or on the decision to introduce disqualification as the ultimate penalty for the most serious breaches of the rules – defined as four strokes over the limit of six on the Flat and seven over jumps.
Having suffered the PR consequences after the last big change to the whip rules, which arrived a few days before the first Champions Day at Ascot, the timing certainly feels like a brave decision, at best. It could be argued there is never an ideal moment and that when summer arrives there will always be a big meeting in the not-too-distant future.
But next month’s Cheltenham Festival is not just a big meeting, but the biggest of the year, flat or jumps. The Grand National a few weeks later is the sport’s most famous and popular race. That inevitably heaps extra pressure on all jockeys, not least those based in Ireland who will be turning up to ride at the Festival in March without the benefit of a bedding-in period.
The arrival of potential disqualification – several days after the event and so not for betting purposes – is also fraught with danger. One of the most likely scenarios for a rider going four strokes over the limit is in the closing stages of a major race and the headlines that could follow a close finish up the long run-in in the National and in the days leading up to a WRC decision on whether or not punters who backed the runner-up were robbed are scarcely imaginable.
Proponents of disqualification for serious breaches often claim the deterrent effect will be such that it may never need to be used. We shall see, but my own view would be that it is highly likely to happen and probably sooner rather than later.
The BHA has praised the efforts of jockeys in recent weeks to adapt to the new rules, but expecting riders to change what are, in some cases at least, the habits of a riding lifetime, just as they head into the cauldron of Cheltenham, is a huge ask. They will get there in time, but the next few weeks could give us all an unnecessarily bumpy ride.