No evidence that whip use in Thoroughbred horse racing improves steering, reduces interference, increases safety or improves finishing times could be found by researchers, who pored over 126 race reports by stewards.
Kirrilly Thompson and her colleagues, writing in the open-access journal Animals, said fairness is essential to the multibillion-dollar Thoroughbred racing industry. This is broadly referred to as racing integrity.
“Whilst there are comprehensive rules and regulations governing equipment and conduct, whip use is the most publicly visible enforcement of integrity in racing.”
The whip has been considered important for on-course integrity for two main reasons.
First, it is believed to support a jockey’s ability to steer, which is necessary to avoid interference between horses.
“Given that interference can lead to serious or catastrophic injury, whip use is therefore also perceived to be essential for horse and jockey safety.”
Second, whip use is taken as evidence that jockeys are meeting their obligation to ride horses out on their full merits.
“This is important to counter accusations that a horse was not given full opportunity to win or place. In these instances, whip use is often referred to as ‘encouragement’ or ‘persuasion’ for the horse.
“Whip use is believed to give everyone a fair chance of winning, including owners, trainers, jockeys, horses and punters.”
The idea that whip use is critical to Thoroughbred racing integrity is culturally entrenched, the researchers say, but its impact on steering and safety have not been studied.
In their research, Thompson and her colleagues compared “whipping-free” races in Britain, where whips are held but not used, with the more commonplace “whipping-permitted” races.
They analysed reports for 126 races, representing 1178 jockeys and their horses, produced by stewards engaged by the British Horseracing Authority.
The researchers compared reports from 67 “Hands and Heels” races, where whips are held but not used, with 59 reports from case-matched races where whipping was permitted. All were flat races run on turf or all-weather surfaces in Britain.
The study team found no statistically significant differences between stewards having anything to report, movement on course, interference on course, incidents related to jockey behaviour, or race finishing times.
“That is, we found no evidence that whip use improves steering, reduces interference, increases safety or improves finishing times.”
However, the stewards’ reports across both categories of races indicated an urgent need to improve steering, they said.
“We, therefore, recommend investment in science-based foundation training of racehorses to take advantage of non-whip related cues at jockeys’ disposal, such as the use of an open rein and/or weight shifts.”
Developments in the pre-training of racehorses could mitigate any natural tendencies in individual horses to drift left or right.
“Improving the foundation training of racehorses could have secondary benefits by making ex-racehorses easier to rehome after retirement from racing and therefore less represented among wastage figures.”
The researchers said there were no statistically significant differences in the finishing times between the two race types.
“Our findings undermine the popular assumption that whipping increases the speed of horses, or at least reduces the loss of speed that can be expected towards the end of a race when horses are fatigued.”
The authors said the continuation of whipping-free races would provide further data for more comprehensive research on the subject.
“From a cost-benefit analysis approach to equine welfare, any costs to introducing whipping-free races would be exceeded by the benefits to racing integrity, horse welfare, public perception and the industry’s social licence to operate.”
They concluded: “We found nothing to commend the use of the whip in horseracing that could (a) be related to integrity, (b) counter the scientific evidence that whip use is a welfare concern or (c) alleviate increasing public discontent with horseracing.
“As such, whipping-free races could be adopted more broadly by the industry internationally without compromising racing integrity or horse/jockey safety.”
The study team comprised Thompson, affiliated with the University of South Australia; Phil McManus, Bethany Wilson and Paul McGreevy, with the University of Sydney; and Dene Stansall, with Animal Aid in Britain.
Thompson, K.; McManus, P.; Stansall, D.; Wilson, B.J.; McGreevy, P.D. Is Whip Use Important to Thoroughbred Racing Integrity? What Stewards’ Reports Reveal about Fairness to Punters, Jockeys and Horses. Animals 2020, 10, 1985.