Whipping Up Controversy Over Whipping in California

by John Furgele

There’s a strong left-handed whip by Pincay, he goes to it time and time again, but Ronnie Turcotte has his whip put away and Secretariat has it put away.”

— Call of the 1973 Preakness Stakes

“The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong to go. Birdstone is an upset threat … Birdstone surges past, Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

— Call of the 2004 Belmont Stakes.

If you love horse racing, you know these famous calls, but if The Stronach Group has its way, the whip may be going the way of the typewriter or, at the very least, the desktop computer.

We all know that Santa Anita is going through some really tough times. Since Dec. 26, there have been 22 equine fatalities and, for a month, there was no racing. As a result, those that oversee horse racing are looking for ways to make the sport safer.

  • Should drugs be banned?
  • What about Lasix? Does it help, hurt or mask?
  • What about track surfaces?
  • What about this and what about that?

Horse racing is like any other sport. No matter what is done, it will never be perfect. Horses will still get hurt and, lacking the ability to heal these injuries (in many cases), horses will still have to be euthanized. This may sound cruel and cold, but it is reality. The deaths at Santa Anita are concerning, but is there a concrete reason why the numbers have spiked so much since December?

No sport is immune from catastrophe. We saw Dale Earnhardt, perhaps the best driver in NASCAR history, perish at the 2001 Daytona 500. Last week, Portland Trailblazers center Jusef Nurkic broke his leg in two and, last fall, Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith did the same.

America used to be a society of great thinking and thinkers, but, today, we have become a society of reactors. Most reacting is done without thinking. When there is a mass shooting, the quick reaction is to ban the guns. Without getting political, this happens each and every day. The problem is that there is no thought being put into the reaction and often the knee-jerk law or legislation doesn’t work or, at best, is highly ineffective.

Some think whipping a horse is cruel and that it leads to breakdowns. Is this true? Has anybody done the research to back it up? The Stronach Group thinks that horse whipping might be causing horses to break down. As a result, whipping will be banned/severely limited at their two California tracks — Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.

The Stronachs also own Laurel Racetrack in Maryland and Gulfstream Park in Florida, but whips will be allowed there — for now. And when I say whipping will be banned, I need to clarify: it will be allowed if the horse’s safety is in danger. How this will be judged will be one of the world’s great mysteries and interpretation will be next to impossible.

How does this make sense? Again, where is the thinking? If whip use is bad, then the Stronachs should ban it at all tracks and encourage others to do the same, right?

And what will happen when the Breeders’ Cup comes to Santa Anita in November? There will be horses that will have raced in Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and other states that have raced under the whip all year and, suddenly, that will stop/be limited on the biggest day of the racing year?

Horse racing is regulated by the individual states and the Breeder’s Cup has its own set of rules and procedures. If you think there will be no horse whipping at the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita this November then call me. I have oceanfront property in Nebraska I’d like to sell you.

This is the inherent problem of reacting instead of thinking. Because there is no real evidence on the effects of whipping, the other states won’t ban it and, if that’s the case, you can be assured that whipping will be allowed at the Breeders’ Cup, California be damned. If not, future Breeders’ Cup will skip over the California tracks that are Santa Anita and Del Mar.

Why are horses breaking down at Santa Anita? We all know that there is a horse shortage and, because of that, it’s reasonable to assume that many horses are sent to the post at less than 100 percent.

We also know that there are too many tracks in the United States. Think about Amazon and what it’s done to stores like JC Penney, Sears and K-Mart. When more people shop online, guess what happens to the brick-and-mortar stores? They close. This doesn’t happen in horse racing. The number of horses has decreased while the number of tracks has stayed the same. Does this make sense?

Nobody wants to see a track close, but what about strategizing the schedules even a little bit. Does Parx have to be open 12 months a year? Wouldn’t it be better to partner up with, say, Laurel and split the season? Why not run three months at Laurel, then three at Parx, then back to Laurel and back to Parx?

I know this is tricky because we are talking about two different states here, but if there’s a horse shortage and, as a result, horses that are less than 100 percent are racing and subsequently getting hurt, isn’t there a better solution? Again, where are brilliant thinkers?

I won’t trot out that horse racing needs a national governing body — that is not going to happen in my lifetime unless the federal government steps in. And that’s something nobody wants to see. NYRA runs Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct and it struggles enough there. I can’t imagine getting NYRA officials in a room with California, Florida, Maryland, Kentucky and Arkansas and seeing real improvement.

Maybe less racing days would be better. Saratoga is going to race five times per week, rather than six, for its summer meet and you know what? That’s still too many days. Less might really be more when it comes to horse racing. The quantity goes down, but perhaps the quality goes up.

But that’s not what we will get. Instead of folks putting their heads together and coming up with real solutions, we get the reaction measure of banning/limiting whips.

Most handicappers acknowledge that some horses need the whip to get them going or, more importantly, to keep them going. Will bettors shun tracks like Santa Anita, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields now that whips will be banned/limited? And were they (the bettors) even asked to give their thoughts on the matter? I do know one thing: if handle drops, the whips will be back in a New York minute.

I could be wrong here, but history is likely on my side. In the early 2000s, California passed legislation that required all of its tracks to switch over to synthetics. After it happened, horse fatalities decreased significantly, handle stayed the same, as did field sizes. In fairness, soft tissue injuries increased, but it appeared, at the time, that there was more good than bad with the synthetic surfaces.

But bettors and trainers complained and so too did writers and owners. As a result, the legislation was overturned and the synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita and Del Mar went bye-bye (Golden Gate Fields kept its intact).

I wonder how long it will take for the whip to come back at the California tracks. Make no mistake, due diligence has to be done. These fatalities need to be studied and, hopefully, the researchers can come up with sound reasons for what has happened. Deep down, the industry knows why — drugs, unsound horses, bad weather and, yes, bad luck. That’s right, luck does play a role here.

Sometimes, a NASCAR race is contested with very few yellow flags; other times, it’s one after another. How do you really explain this? How do you explain one horse covering six furlongs in 1:09.4 and another pulling up at the top of the stretch?

In the 1973 Preakness, Pincay was whipping Sham feverishly, while Turcotte barely moved on Secretariat. Sham is moving swiftly, but Secretariat is swifter. That’s horse racing.

In 2004, Smarty Jones got the whip, so too, did Birdstone. Birdstone won the race, but Smarty Jones survived. Again, that’s horse racing. In that race, jockey Edgar Prado was constantly whipping Birdstone and the colt — at 36-1 — responded with a win that spoiled Smarty’s bid for Triple Crown glory.

We don’t know what the right answer is, but it is clear that deep thinking is not taking place. Banning the whip may help with PETA and it may help with the casual fan, but it’s not a real solution.

That’s something you can bet on.

Posted on