Tighter whip controls in harness racing did not harm performances – study

Queensland pacer Avonnova in full flight.
Queensland pacer Avonnova in full flight. © Harness Racing Australia

Changes in Australian harness racing which moderated whip use did not harm winning times, researchers have found.

The University of Sydney study team, which analysed the winning times of 133,338 harness races, identified a long-term trend over nine years of increased frequency of both fast and medium winning times in mile races, despite whip use being more tightly regulated part-way through this period.

In fact, after tighter whip rules were introduced, the odds of a good time (under 1 minute 55 seconds) actually increased.

The trio, writing in the journal PLOS ONE, noted that the use of whips in racing was subject to debate, not least because of the prospect that fatigued horses cannot respond, rendering the practice futile and inhumane.

Racing industries maintain that whip use is a form of encouragement and that the rules of racing that govern their use safeguard horse welfare.

The study examined trends over time in the frequency of medium and fast race-winning times in Australian harness racing between September 2007 and August 2016, when whip use was more tightly controlled.

The first change, introduced in January 2010, moderated whip action so that horses were struck with less force.

In October that year, an amendment reversed this change for the final 200 metres of races to allow for more forceful whip strikes, except in one racing jurisdiction.

© Harness Racing NSW
© Harness Racing NSW

However, those amendments were eventually reversed in May 2016, restoring the first rule change in all harness racing jurisdictions in Australia.

Despite whip use being regulated from the start of 2010, a long-term trend of increased frequency of both fast and medium winning times over a mile was noted during the study period.

“Even after adjusting for this trend, all whip handling codes were associated with greater odds of winning times being less than 1:55 minutes compared with the pre-2010 period.”

Additionally, the periods immediately before and after introducing the most stringent regulations were compared.

“This revealed that, when introduced in 2010, these regulations were associated with faster winning times. Their re-introduction in 2016 was associated with no significant differences.

“Despite concerns that tightening of whip regulations might reduce performance, none of our analyses revealed any significant reduction in either fast or medium winning times in races following the tightening of regulations governing the use of the whip.”

The findings question the supposed need for whips to improve racing performance, they said.

For their analysis, the researchers classified winning times as either slow (over 2 minutes), medium (between 1:55.1 and 2:00) or fast (1:55 and under).

Analysis of the 2015–2016 racing season showed no significant change in the proportion of fast, medium and slow winning times before and after a tightening of regulations, and no significant effect of whip handling code changes on the proportion of winning times faster than 2 minutes.

“While track surfaces were not subject to major improvements over the course of the study, a small number of relevant tracks were subject to changes in their circumference, turns and camber.

© Harness Racing NSW

“These changes may account for some, or perhaps all, of the improved times at these tracks. Were this the case, the data would still demonstrate that any hypothetical slowing of winning times, after tightening whipping rules, is insubstantial compared to improvements which may be gained by improved track design.

“From an animal welfare perspective, provided such track modifications do not endanger horses, this is clearly a preferable method of improving times when compared with relaxing whip regulations.

“The current study provides evidence that improvements to the welfare of horses participating in harness racing can be made, by restricting the use of the whip as a noxious stimulus, without resulting in slower winning times and, by extension, a less marketable entertainment experience.

“On the contrary, the reduction or even elimination of whip use may improve the acceptability of harness racing to an increasingly animal-welfare conscious public.

“The current findings raise more questions about the need for the whip as a performance aid in racing and may assist racing authorities in considering the evidence over whether to remove whips from racing altogether.”

They noted that a previous announcement by Harness Racing Australia in December 2017 that it would ban the use of the whip, other than for emergency use for safety reasons, was rescinded due to widespread driver and steward concerns about maintaining safety for drivers and horses.

The study was a collaboration between the University of Sydney and RSPCA Australia. The study costs were met by RSPCA Australia.

Wilson B, Jones B, McGreevy P (2018) Longitudinal trends in the frequency of medium and fast race winning times in Australian harness racing: Relationships with rules moderating whip use. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0184091. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184091

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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