Talking Horses: whip rules row brings more questions than answers

Several important questions were left hanging with regard to British racing’s latest row over the whip rules when the cold snap arrived on Saturday to wipe out much of this week’s jumping programme. Why now, when the new rules, which are due to come into force on 6 February after a four-week “bedding-in” period, were published in mid-July?

How far will the jockeys go to get the British Horseracing Authority to address their concerns? And what, if anything, has the Professional Jockeys Association to say about it all, given two senior current riders – PJ McDonald and Tom Scudamore – were part of the Whip Consultation Steering Group that designed the new regime?

The timing question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Jockeys operate from day to day, one meeting to the next, on a schedule that must make three months’ time feel like a lifetime away. While the new rules – the most significant and contentious of which is a ban on using the whip in the forehand position – were announced in the summer, the schedule for their introduction was not finalised until the last week of November.

That led to stipendiary stewards having a quiet word with jockeys about what are entirely legitimate rides that would fall foul of the new regime next year, when a single use of the whip in the forehand would incur at least a seven-day suspension or a fortnight if it occurs in a Class 1 or Class 2 race. As a result, it has rapidly dawned on jockeys just how significantly they are being asked to change the habits of their riding lifetimes.

How deep the anger runs, and how far riders will go to express their concerns, remains to be seen. If it ever breaks cover to pass comment, the PJA may well shed some light but its apparent reluctance to get seriously involved suggests that either the riders are less united than it appears, or that the trade association has managed to lose the weighing room. Either way, the annual Lesters Awards – live on Sky Sports Racing on Friday evening – could be an interesting watch.

What remains truly baffling, to this observer at least, is the timing of the change, a few weeks before the Cheltenham Festival, which is now generally acknowledged as the biggest racing week of the year.

It is as if the BHA learned nothing from the botched introduction of the whip rule changes in October 2011, when complaints about a strict new regime dominated the run-up to the first Champions Day at Ascot, and the action on the day itself was overshadowed by a £52,000 fine for Christophe Soumillon – later rescinded – for going one stroke over on Cirrus Des Aigles in the feature race.

The whip rules will be a key talking point in the run-up to next year’s Festival on both sides of the Irish Sea, not least as Ireland’s leading jockeys will arrive at Cheltenham with no significant experience of the new regime. When the action starts, every close finish will be a controversy waiting to happen, not least if a rider goes to the forehand and wins by a short head from a rival who stuck to the new rules.

There is also the lingering question of what was so wrong with the old rules the BHA felt it necessary to revisit them so radically in the first place. The stroke limits of seven on the Flat and eight over jumps have not changed, and the BHA has long maintained that the whip is no longer, of itself, a welfare issue. For all the talk of giving their horse “a slap”, the modern, foam-padded whip is more akin to tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention.

On that basis, a move from eight strokes in forehand being legitimate to one potentially incurring a 14-day ban is a huge leap. The suspicion must be that the forehand ban was seen as an alternative to reducing the stroke count, down to five in France and Germany, but if so it does not seem to be a compromise with widespread support in the weighing room.

The new whip regime was unveiled five months ago as a way to draw the sting from the issue for many years to come. For the next few months at least, however, it seems likely to do anything but.