By Mike Farrell
The “Fighting Finish” is one of the most recognizable images in horse racing.
The head-on shot captures the fury of the 1933 Kentucky Derby stretch run, won by Brokers Tip by a nose over Head Play. While the two horses gallantly laid everything on the line, the jockeys waged their own battle immortalized by the photo.
Don Meade, aboard Brokers Tip, and Herb Fisher on Head Play punched and whipped each other in a take-no-prisoners fight to the finish.
That was a very different era. America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. Times were tough. Life was hard. And riding racehorses was a hardscrabble way to scratch out a living.
Race riding has always been a hotly competitive sport. Barring a dead heat, there is only one winner in every race. To the victor go the major spoils. Add the fact that jockeys face potential injury, even death, every time they get a leg up, and you have a combustible brew.
Network television captured Calvin Borel punching Javier Castellano in the winner’s circle following the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon. Borel, incensed by Castellano’s ride, fortunately didn’t follow through with the threat of “I’m going to kill you.”
That was one of the most visible outbursts. Most of the confrontations over the years have taken place out of sight, in the horse tunnels leading to the track and in the jocks’ room.
While competitive fires still burn in each riding colony, there is evidence that attitudes might be changing. Shifts in society at large are working their way into sports.
Mike Babcock, one of the most successful NHL coaches in recent times, was dismissed by the Maple Leafs last month. Several players have spoken out against their former boss, with one calling him the “worst person I have ever met.”
Imagine that. A coach is now thrown under the bus because he’s too mean. Or because he didn’t create enough “safe spaces” for amply-paid athletes.
Perhaps horse racing has also entered into this “kindlier, gentler” era.
Of course, we all desire a safer sport with less risk for the equine and human participants. Let’s not go overboard in removing the competitive fires that makes racing such a compelling sport to watch and wager on.
Which brings us to recent whip-sharing controversy that netted jockeys Julien Couton and Silvio Amador 30-day suspensions from the California Horse Racing Board.
The incident took place Dec. 12 at Golden Gate Fields and immediately became an internet viral video sensation.
Couton dropped the whip while his mount was launching a rally. There appears to be a conversation when he pulls alongside Amador, whose filly had no chance. Amador hands over his crop and Couton uses the borrowed whip to urge his horse on to a third-place finish.
How gentlemanly. How alien to the history and traditions of racing.
Mid-contest collusion and equipment swapping have no place in this, or any other professional sport.
I’m sure Don Meade and Calvin Borel never provided such aid and comfort to a rival.
Whips have been in the spotlight in California with a new set of rules under consideration that would severely restrict their use. No more than six strikes in a race. No raising the whip above the shoulder.
And let’s hope no more whip passing after the starting gate opens.