Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Rules on the Use of Riding Crops

Written By Kimberly French on June 16, 2020
Kentucky Derby

On Tuesday, June 15, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Safety and Welfare Committee and Rules Committee unanimously approved an amended rule that restricted how riding crops are used, after two differing proposals were introduced by the Jockeys’ Guild and the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. The meeting was available through live streaming.

The two organizations compromised that jockeys can only use the crop on six occasions during a race after the first furlong, and only twice in succession before a horse must respond.

Two proposals to limit the use of riding crops

The six-strike rule amendment was proposed by the Jockeys’ Guild and supported by jockeys Julien Leparoux, Mike Smith, and John Velazquez during the meeting. The Jockeys’ Guild proposal countered a proposal submitted by the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.

The founding members of this newly formed organization are Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland, the New York Racing Association, The Stronach Group, Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup. Their proposal allowed jockeys to use the crop five times after the first furlong and three times in succession prior to a horse responding.

In reference to the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition’s proposal, Churchill Downs Inc.’s executive director of racing, Mike Ziegler, said: “We have allowed for the use of a crop at any time without penalty by a rider to avoid a dangerous situation. Now as long as a rider uses the crop at that point they can no longer persevere and need to pull up in the race, so if there’s a real bad safety situation they can use the riding crop without penalty. We also allow in our proposal that the rider can use the crop in a back-handed or under-handed fashion at the start of a race. … We allow for the rider to tap the horse with the crop so long as both hands are on the rein and on the neck of the horse throughout the entire race.”

The “start of the race” was defined as the first furlong in the meeting.

“We can’t be perceived as hitting horses. We can’t hit horses anymore. That’s the ultimate reason we’re talking about this,” Ziegler stated.

The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition’s proposal would not penalize jockeys for extra strikes if the crop is required for their safety, but the extra strikes would be adjudicated by the stewards.

Jockeys argue limits on the whip can be dangerous

Jockeys stated they may require extra strikes to correct a horse before it reacts to something in the race, or if the horse lugs out or in, interfering with other horses and riders. They felt this was not always visible to the stewards.

Smith said that on most occasions jockeys can tell if a horse is going to lug in or out prior to it committing the act.

“If you react it will never happen. For it to have to happen and then for us to react, it’s too late. It already happened. … And the stewards are going to come back and say, ‘Well, I didn’t see him duck. Why did you do that?’ Now you’re fined and you’re getting suspensions, and you knew he was going to duck,” Smith said. “A horse will give you a warning. Nine times out of 10 a horse is going to give you a warning before it does anything, and if you can react to him at that point before he does it, that’s what safety’s all about. If you let it duck and then you react to it, it’s too late.

Velazquez stated waiting for a horse to react, for stewards to understand why a jockey used extra strikes on a horse, will create more accidents versus using the whip more than the rule allows to correct a horse before it lugs in or out.

“The day that you actually put away the whip there will be more accidents on the racetracks, racing in the United States or anywhere. I’m telling you, it will be too dangerous to be run,” he said. “So we will kiss goodbye to racing if that’s the case you’re looking for, no hitting the horse at all. We have to come up with some idea that’s actually going to be a benefit for all of us and still have a business in 100 years.”

Public opinion is against crop use

Kentucky Horse Racing Commission member Charles O’Connor said the organization is attempting to implement rules to protect the riders and satisfy public perception.

“We are trying to save the whip, because if we don’t put in these rules the crop is going to be taken off and I agree with you, it will be the end of racing. … We’re at great danger of you guys losing it and we all know sitting in this meeting that would be a disaster because a horse needs to have a crop,” O’Connor said.

Concurring with Smith and Velazquez, Leparoux also expressed unease over the proposal, saying a jockey must pull a horse out of the race if he goes over the strike limit. The jockey may be able to correct a horse and not have problems until he hits the finish line.

“The beginning of the race I think to me is (the most) important. Then probably the second most important part of the race would be from, let’s say the half-mile pole to the quarter-pole, where there is sometimes some issues during the race — a horse getting out, bolting,” he said. “The proposed rule, the only thing that I didn’t realize, and I heard today, was if the horse does bolt and we use the five, six strikes to correct it, you guys said we need to pull up. I don’t think we should do that anyway — for the gamblers, for the owners, or anybody involved.”

“We absolutely think it would not be a good thing to have a jockey worrying about hitting horses and putting themselves in harm’s way,” said Bob Elliston, Keeneland’s vice president of racing and sales. “We think at that moment in time the best way to avoid that is to get the horse out of the situation and move him out. But at the end of the day we can’t contemplate every single item that’s going to happen on the track.

“There are so many situations that the professionals who addressed this have to encounter. To me, the stewards ultimately are the judge and the cops and if they see those things, and if they see such an egregious event that could have put somebody in harm’s way and the jock had no course but to take the course he did to avoid a spill or others spilled, I trust stewards to make an appropriate judgment.”

The committees concurred to strike some of the proposal’s wording so that jockeys were not required to persevere and pull the horse out of the race. But they did include language clearly outlining whether the use of the crop was necessary or not “in the opinion of the stewards” for the safety of the horse and riders in a race.

The proposed amendments were on the agenda for the Tuesday, June 16 meeting of the full commission.

Kimberly French Avatar
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Kimberly French

Kimberly French is an award winning freelance journalist specializing in horse racing and horse health living in Louisville, KY. Her work has appeared in more than 25 national and international publications. She is currently the editor of Hoof Beats magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Trotting Association and the special assistant to the president for the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

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