Anne M. Eberhardt

KHRC Committees Approve Proposed Crop Use Amendments

Jockeys limited to six strikes in a race.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's Safety and Welfare Committee and Rules Committee unanimously approved June 15 an amended rule that limited the use of the crop after the Jockeys' Guild and the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition brought different proposals to the table in a live streamed digital meeting.

The two groups settled on jockeys being allowed to use the crop six times during a race after the first furlong, and only twice in succession before allowing a horse the chance to respond.

The six-strike rule amendment was proposed by the Jockeys' Guild and backed by jockeys Julien Leparoux, Mike Smith, and John Velazquez in the meeting. The Jockeys' Guild proposal followed one from the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition—whose founding members are Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland, the New York Racing Association, The Stronach Group, Del Mar, and Breeders' Cup—that would allow jockeys five strikes, three times in succession before giving the horse a chance to respond.

Speaking of 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 during 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," said Ziegler.

The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition's proposal would not penalize jockeys for extra strikes if the crop is needed for safety, but the extra strikes will fall to the stewards' opinion. 

Jockeys expressed concern that they may need extra strikes to correct a horse before it reacts and lugs in or out, but they feel that may not be visible to the stewards.

Smith said a majority of the time jockeys can feel if a horse is going to lug in or out before it does.

"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 commented that waiting for a horse to react so stewards can see why a jockey used extra strikes on a horse will cause more accidents on the racetrack than using the whip more than the rule allows in order to correct the horse before it moves 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 added. "So we will kiss good bye 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."

KHRC member Charles O'Connor responded that they are trying to put rules in place that help the safety of the riders and that are better for public perception as not to lead to an outrage.

"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.

Agreeing with Smith and Velazquez, Leparoux also voiced concern over the proposal stating that a jockey must pull a horse out of the race if he exceeds the strike limit, as a jockey might be in position to correct a horse's path in a race and continue without issue to the wire.

"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, vice president of Keeneland 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 agreed to strike the proposal's wording so that jockeys would no longer have to persevere and pull the horse out of the race but to include language that dictates whether the use of the crop was necessary or not "in the opinion of the stewards" for the safety or the horse and riders in a race.

The proposed amendments from the committees are on the agenda for the June 16 meeting of the full commission.