By a 5-0 vote, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) advanced a rule proposal that could become the most stringent racehorse whipping ban in the nation on Thursday.
Under the terms of the new proposed rule, the whipping of horses will no longer be permitted at any state-sanctioned track for any circumstances other than “when necessary to control the horse for the safety of the horse or rider.”
A late amendment removed a potentially controversial clause that would have allowed for the pari-mutuel disqualification of horses whose jockeys struck them with the whip in non-safety instances. That change means offending jockeys could still be sanctioned and/or lose their share of the purse, but the order of finish for betting purposes and payouts would remain unaffected.
After a state-mandated 45-day period to gather and consider public commentary, the CHRB will take a final, binding vote on the whipping ban. It then must be approved by the state’s Office of Administrative Law before it becomes official. Until then, the current “three strikes before giving the horse a chance to respond” rule remains on the books.
The anti-whipping topic has rocketed to the forefront of the industry over the past several weeks after Santa Anita Park suspended racing in the wake of 22 equine deaths at the track since Dec. 26. Some stakeholders have identified indiscriminate whip use as a factor in the catastrophic injuries.
The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Santa Anita, on Mar. 14 announced a number of paradigm-shifting Thoroughbred welfare policies in an attempt to make racing and training safer. At the Mar. 28 meeting, the CHRB was seeking to codify some of TSG’s proposed “house rules” by mandating them at the state level.
The topic of animal abuse—both real and perceived—was central to the 50-minute whipping discussion, which was impassioned but civil in the presence of a throng of mainstream media outlets and an audience that included animal-rights protestors who have advocated for an outright ban on the sport of horse racing.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the most straightforward attempt to defuse the “us versus them” mentality that exists between racing industry participants and animal rights protesters that have recently been picketing outside Santa Anita came from Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Guillermo said she routinely fields five or six phone calls a day from people within the racing industry tipping off PETA to abusive practices on the backstretches of the nation’s racetracks.
“I’ve been working for [PETA for] 10 years, and I haven’t said ‘end racing,'” Guillermo explained. “What I have said is, ‘Get rid of the drugs, get rid of the whipping, get rid of the abuse.’ We never wanted to have a campaign against horse racing…. We got pulled into this industry because we couldn’t ignore the phone calls from the public and the phone calls from people inside racing.
“The racing industry is constantly talking about improving its image to the public,” Guillermo continued. “Well you can’t do that if you keep whipping horses who supposedly ‘love to run.’ There’s already been a compromise in allowing the jockeys to carry the whip and use it as a safety device and a correctional device. Sanctioning obvious physical abuse should not be a compromise.”
“Racing will adapt to a whipping ban,” Guillermo predicted. “The bettors will factor it in. The jockeys will adjust. And the irony here, for me, is that I’m giving the industry advice that will help it to survive in a world that has just become intolerant of abuse.”
Tom Kennedy, the general counsel for the Jockeys’ Guild, spoke on behalf of California’s riders by suggesting that the years-long series of modifications and enhancements to design a more humane whip haven’t been very well explained to the general public, leading to alleged misperceptions that striking the animals is cruel.
Kennedy also testified that “any use of the riding crop was not implicated in any of the circumstances under which, unfortunately, horses died at Santa Anita.” He added that “in our view, this proposed regulation does not reflect the level of research or factual investigation that would need to be a predicate before the process could be begun.”
That statement was immediately challenged by CHRB chairman Chuck Winner.
“I believe that’s not an accurate statement,” Winner said. “We don’t know that for sure. If you watch some of the tapes, the horses that went down in the morning, in some cases, in my view, the crop was being overused.”
Terry Meyocks, the president and chief executive of the Jockeys’ Guild, said he advocated for additional rounds of study at the CHRB’s safety committee level before the full board considered voting on any whip ban.
That line of reasoning drew a pointed riposte from CHRB vice chair Madeline Auerbach.
“What I have a problem with, and I’ll be direct with you, is your approach,” Auerbach said, addressing the Guild’s contingent. “Your approach is to come in here and tell us how to conduct our business, and I find that a little offensive. If you think that we haven’t had many, many discussions and done all of our due diligence, you are quite mistaken.
“We are appointed to take care of racing in California. And if we ignore the view or the people of this state we will all pay a very big price,” Auerbach continued. “We won’t be arguing about whips…. There will be no need for them, because we will have destroyed the industry by being viewed as not taking care of our horses. This is not going away. We need to fix our industry. And remember: What happens here will eventually happen elsewhere. So we are at the forefront of trying to save racing.”
CHRB commissioner Alex Solis, a Hall-of-Fame jockey, chose his words deliberately when commenting on the pending vote.
“I feel for my peers. But we’re at a very critical time for horse racing here in California, and it breaks my heart,” Solis said. “We’re talking about the future of California racing, so I feel like we have to compromise one way or another.”
Solis then asked Guillermo if PETA would support the racing industry if the CHRB voted in the whipping ban.
“I don’t think PETA would ever support any industry that uses animals to make money,” Guillermo said. But she added that there is a likelihood that “your enemies will be fewer if you adopt these rules.”
Belinda Stronach, the chairman and president of TSG, testified on behalf of the anti-whipping measure.
“Change can be scary. I get it,” Stronach said. “But I also believe when you take a principled stand, and you make change for the better and the right reasons, and demonstrate that we’re committed to doing the right thing and regaining public confidence, that we will end up in a better position.”
Stronach added that TSG would eventually be seeking to extend its in-house whipping ban to other tracks it owns outside of California, like Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, and Portland Meadows.
When Winner called for the CHRB vote, it was unanimous in favor of advancing the no-whipping rule to the 45-day public commentary period.
“What I’m going to do is ask staff to move this item to the top of the list of what they’re working on so it can go to the Office of Administrative Law more rapidly to expedite the process,” Winner said.
Several minutes after passage of the anti-whipping initiative—and even though the board still had other key equine drug-related voting initiatives on the agenda—Winner noted that mainstream media had largely vacated the meeting room.
“By the way, for you folks that were wondering what issues the public cares about, you might notice that most of the cameras have packed up and left,” Winner said. “That’s because the discussion of the crop rule is over. That’s what the public cares about.”