Horse Racing Walks Fine Line With Whip Rule

By Mike Farrell

Spare the whip, spoil the outcome.

That is the direction we are headed, as exemplified by the latest ruling from the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia following Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup.

The stewards took David Egan to task for use of the “whip above the permitted level” in rousing Mishriff to victory in the world’s richest race.

Egan’s crime: he exceeded the rule that limits a rider to 10 strikes. While they were handing out penalties, the stewards also slapped Mike Smith with a two-day suspension for his ride on runner-up Charlatan.

Egan took the brunt of the stewards’ wrath. In addition to a two-day suspension, Egan will forfeit 10% of his earnings in the race, roughly $100,000.

Smith was hit with a similar penalty following last year’s inaugural Saudi Cup.

They are obviously running a very tight ship in the desert. Reportedly, Egan applied an 11th strike in the upset victory, triggering the penalty.

What if Egan held back, mindful of the whipping rules, and it cost his horse the victory? Would he be the villain of this tale for exercising restraint?

This is part of the trend to present a kinder, gentler face of horseracing to the world. We’ve already seen major changes, like banning Lasix from graded stakes and enhanced veterinary scrutiny.

It’s a fine line the sport walks in administering whip rules. No one wants to see a poor plug with no chance of winning feel the wrath of a sadistic or frustrated rider. A horse with no shot should be wrapped up by the jockey and returned to the trainer and owner in the unsaddling area with the gentle advice to find a more favorable spot next time.

At the other extreme, every bettor, owner and trainer wants to see a horse given every opportunity to win. Sometimes a few cracks of the crop are needed to obtain the best possible outcome.

Striking a fair, proper, and humane balance is a challenge.

The computerization of the parimutuel system played a role in the growth of excessive whip use. In the not-too-distant past, horseplayers had limited options: win, place, show, daily double and exacta wagering.

The jockey’s and the bettor’s goals were aligned. Hit the board or forget it. Thanks to sophisticated software, we have the superfecta [selecting the correct order of the first four horses under the wire] and the super high five [extending the superfecta an extra position to cover the first five finishers].

So, a jockey must now exert all-out effort to finish fifth, even if the mount trails the winner by double-digit lengths, because wagers are riding on the outcome.

Sometimes we become too technologically advanced for the health and well-being of the horses, the heartbeat of this sport.

Bye-bye Arlington

Arlington International, the long-time pride and joy of Dick Duchossois, was moved to death row on Tuesday by Churchill Downs Inc.

Churchill announced that Arlington was for sale with the goal of redeveloping the property.

A Chicago tradition will soon bite the dust, fading into history to join the ghosts of racetracks past like Hollywood Park, Detroit Race Course and Garden State Park.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way when Duchossois merged his track with Churchill Downs in 2000. The presumption was Arlington would eventually be home to both a world-class racetrack and a casino.

Turns out Churchill invested in a separate Chicago casino property and ultimately deemed Arlington expendable.

Churchill pledged to run the 2021 season at Arlington, and to seek a new venue for the racing license. Wherever the Arlington dates land won’t be nearly as plush and classy as the current locale.

It’s another reminder that the old-school racing operators, like Duchossois [still with us at 99], Charlie Cella and R.D. Hubbard were artifacts of a bygone era.

Racing is now firmly in the grip of gaming companies. Their bottom lines don’t allow for history, tradition, or sentimentality.