There has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been scant sympathy for the professional jockeys who have objected to new rules and penalties for excessive use of the whip. The right of small men to hit sensitive animals for human profit and sport is hardly a case for the European Court of Human Rights.
Yet the decisions currently being made by the British Horseracing Authority have implications beyond its own sport. Animal welfare â€“ at least where the perceived suffering is visible â€“ is no longer simply the concern of scruffy activists, and nowhere is the balance between animals suffering and humans having fun and making money more finely poised than in equestrian sport.
The jockeys are right to be annoyed. A new ruling was introduced last week restricting the number of times a horse can be hit in a race: seven times in a flat race, eight for a race over jumps, with a maximum of five strikes in the final furlong or after the last fence. It is a somewhat nerdish and reductive approach to what happens in the heat of battle of a big-money sport, but it has the advantage of clarity.
It is the penalties which reveal profoundly confused thinking. One strike over the limit and the jockey loses his prize-money and is suspended for five days; a second offence and the ban is extended to 15 days. Within three days of the new rules being introduced, one top jockey Richard Hughes, after two offences, found that his ban would remove him from the most valuable day in the British racing calendar, Champions Day at Ascot, and the internationally important Breeders’ Cup meeting in America. He turned in his licence in protest.
The winner of Ascot’s big race, Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon also had the smile wiped off his face when he lost his prize money of Â£50,000. In a driving finish for the Champion Stakes, he had used the stick six times in the last furlong instead of five.
Here is the madness: his horse Cirrus des Aigles won the Â£1.3m prize, quite possibly thanks to that illegal extra stroke of the whip. While the jockey paid the price, its owners and punters reaped the benefit of his alleged wrongdoing. There is something distinctly odd going on here, perhaps reflecting the fact that racing is still a socially hierarchical sport, in which jockeys, however well-paid, remain below stairs.
All sports which involve animals need to get these decisions right because the pressure on them from a public which is increasingly sensitive to certain types of perceived animal cruelty will only increase. Years ago, it was normal for a Grand National in which horses died and those which finished almost walked over the line under the flailing whips of their jockeys to be seen as a classic encounter. Now it is the suffering, not the victory, which dominates the headlines.
As for those who object on principle when a horse is forced by a human to go faster than it would like, or jump an absurdly large obstacle in a show-jumping ring, or carry itself in a fake and fancy manner for dressage , they should probably remember that all sport involving animals, with the exception of hunting, is essentially unnatural. If you remove the domination of human over animal, then the reason for horses to be bred and kept, in the developed world, largely disappears.
To head off future criticism, the BHA needs to use common sense and courage. Greater understanding is needed when dealing with what has happened in a race. If a whip is deemed to have been used excessively by the jockey, it should cost the horse the race. The owners, trainers and punters will rage, but racing and animal rights would benefit.
Ambulance chasing gone mad
When a signature on an official document needs to be witnessed by a respectable member of society, it is always rather a shock to find heading the list of acceptably sound professions is that of lawyer. Are members of the legal profession really more likely to be more trustworthy than, say, a taxi driver or a poet? The ranks of politicians, not known for reliability, are filled with solicitors and barristers who often used their training to conceal truth, rather than reveal it.
Then there is the way they earn their money. The Sunday Times has reported that divorce lawyers now offer bungs of up to Â£100,000 to those prepared to tip them the wink about promisingly miserable marriages. The idea developed, apparently, from the success of one firm which would slip a hairdresser backhanders for disclosing potentially profitable marital confidences from the salon.
It is no secret the divorce business is ruthless and money-led. Now, it turns it out to be downright sleazy, too.
Independent, 18 October 2011