Sunday, November 11, 2018

To Whip and Not to Whip, These Are the Questions

Despite a formful, championship-crowning, and dramatic-finish excitement of last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, it wasn’t the greatest week for the rest of the racing world, practically or optically.

On the same day Christophe Soumillon was beating on Thunder Snow with a Gatling-style machine gun right handed whip, Turffontein Race Course in South Africa conducted its first in a series of crop-free racing.

Lamentably, the National Horseracing Authority of South Africa said the next one is a couple of months down the road. Under consideration is whether jockeys will be allowed to carry whips and not use them, or not be permitted to carry them at all.

I have spoken with jockeys over the years regarding whip use and most insisted that in addition to getting a response from a horse that was not picking up the tempo on its own, a riding crop is also a rider’s safety net.

This argument states that when mounts unexpectedly bear out or lug in sharply, to the detriment of themselves or other riders, the whip acts as a corrective steering mechanism by getting the horse’s attention before it’s too late.

A racing fan on Twitter noted shortly after Thunder’s Snow third-place Classic finish that Soumillon had whipped his mount no less than 15 times. I watched several head-on and pan views and I can’t say that it was 15, but it WAS excessive.

The whipping appeared unnecessarily harsh as Thunder Snow was giving his best stretch effort, beaten 1-3/4 lengths for the win, 3/4s of that for place as he failed to stay with runnerup Gunnevera in the final few strides.

Coincidentally, or not, trainer Graham Motion, while not citing the incident specifically, did call for a serious investigative study into what should or should not be permitted regarding whip use as it relates to racing internationally.

Of course, when California instituted its three-strike-limit whip rules, there was much gnashing of teeth and cries among horseplayers who apparently believe that if jockeys weren’t whipping their mounts purposefully they weren’t trying their best.

Weighing in at six pounds of overweight at the age of 12, I cannot claim to have first-hand knowledge of what constitutes excessively flagrant whip use, but I will say this:

When Accelerate twice balked prior to the gate load, NBC mics clearly picked up the sound of the Classic winner’s handlers as they encouraged Accelerate to go forward with the crack of the whip several times. The sound of it was cringe worthy.

I only know that if a horseman of Motion’s stature and demonstrable integrity is calling for a review of whip use in this country, especially when compared to what’s acceptable around the world, there must be something to this issue.

For most loyal fans and inveterate bettors alike, the optics of even temperate whip use are terrible. It’s not the message racing wants to send to sport’s followers, never mind efforts devoted to creating new horse racing fans.

No Such Problem In SoCal…

Especially if your name is Kent Desormeaux, who continues to demonstrate that he could care less about the rules of racing that demands jockeys put forth their best effort to the finish or racing fans who participate by betting their money.

Notwithstanding Desormeaux’s well deserved infamy for his failure to ride his mounts out to the finish line, he showed his disregard once again in the 9th race at Santa Anita NOV 9, a race that also offered High Five wagering.

Astride Violent Ridge (12-1), Desormeaux did the right thing almost to the very end. He saved ground behind a contested pace before tipping at out headstretch, simultaneously giving his mount several cracks of the whip for encouragement.

In midstretch, Desormeaux altered course back to the rail and encouraged his mount once again, until the final strides at which point he appeared to stop riding: Again.

The three-way photo, requiring lengthy examination, showed a dead heat for fifth between Violent Ridge and Longden (7-2). Both finished a nose behind fourth finisher Paddock Pick (10-1). The $1 Superfecta paid $847.80 behind 3-1 winning favorite, Surfing Star.

From the tape replay, it was unclear that Desormeaux had stopped riding--until two damning images came to life: The photo clearly showed Desormeaux standing up in the irons and Violent Ridge with something in reserve, finishing second on the gallop-out before reaching the turn.

If I were a steward and this incident was viewed in isolation, Desormeaux’s ride might have resulted in a stern reprimand the next day. But this was no isolated incident. Desormeaux’s actions at the end of races which he cannot win often results in a lackluster effort.

The last time he was called on the carpet for not riding out his mount to the wire resulted in a three-day suspension and a relatively painless fine. It would be laughable if it didn’t make the blood of bettors boil.

Clearly, Desormeaux has no respect for rules or the fans and will do whatever he pleases because he knows his actions will result in only tacit disapproval from officials. Resultantly, the California Horse Race Board must share the blame for what amounts to, by definition, tampering with the outcome of a sporting event.

If Desormeaux was “on his belly” at the finish, the result of the High Five may have been altered—there were no winners according to the official chart--but the chances are Violent Ridge’s backers would have collected a similar $800 superfecta payoff.

Desormeaux repeatedly fails to ride the race out, time after time after time after time. He deserves three months, not three days. Racing’s stakeholders wonder why their fans react in a paranoid and negative fashion.

Maybe it’s because there are too many in the game who act as if they are after them.

NoCal to Permanent SoCal

We’ve heard the arguments: Southern California has the best weather for hosting the Breeders’ Cup in perpetuity and the time zone allows for handle optimization given three extra hours afforded bettors in the East and Midwest.

One big issue, provincial pride notwithstanding, is the “neutral ground” that only racetracks east of the Mississippi can provide. Midwest and Eastern tracks offer a more level playing field, avoiding the logistical advantage of SoCal-based runners.

While the disparity is not as great as it was pre-air travel, it remains easier for animals to ship from west to east successfully than the other way around.

And Breeders’ Cup would not be the international success it is without European participation. They, as do most horses, prefer the cooler climates and shorter trip.

The original Breeders’ Cup vision was for it to be an equine road show. New York deserves to be back in the rotation. Laurel Park, with its honest main track and expansive turf course, deserves a Breeders’ Cup debut.

There’s Keeneland, of course, and one day, it is hoped, Churchill will get a chance to present the Classic under the lights.

Of all the things that may broken in the racing industry, Breeders’ Cup isn’t one of them.

Written by John Pricci

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