Cheltenham Festival: What are controversial new whip rules?

New rules on the use of the whip came into force in February  (Getty Images)
New rules on the use of the whip came into force in February (Getty Images)

British racing is contending with new whip rules introduced shortly before both the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National meet.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) introduced new restrictions for jockeys usage of the tool in February.

Serious breaches of the new rules can result in horses being disqualified.

It is 12 years since a limit was first placed on whip usage amid criticism from animal rights charities.

But what are the new rules, and why have they proved controversial?

What is the whip and why is it used?

Supporters of the whip say it is a crucial tool for jockeys, enabling them to guide a horse away from danger or get the animal’s attention.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) says jockeys can use the whip to encourage but should not be used as a coercive tool to make a horse run faster.

Manufacturers insist that whips do not cause pain to horses. Modern whips are foam-padded, up to 70cm in length and weigh a maximum of 160 grams.

What are the new rules on whip use?

Whip use restrictions were first brought in during 2011, but have been changed over the last couple of months. The tweaks reduce the permitted number of uses by one, from seven to six, with jockeys facing suspension for going above that limit.

A rider’s horse being disqualified if they make four strikes or more over the threshold, with bans doubled in Class 1 or 2 races. Potential offences are no longer dealt with by stewards at racecourses on the day, and are instead referred to a Whip Review Committee.

The committee looks at a number of factors when reviewing potential breaches, including: the force used; the time given for a horse to respond; the purpose of use; whether the horse was in contention or clearly winning; and whether the whip had been used in the correct place.

When were the changes implemented?

After a bedding-in period during January, the rules were implemented in jump racing in Britain on 13 February.

Have any punishments been handed out?

The first week of the new restrictions saw 20 suspensions given out, with Lunar Discovery disqualified from a race at Ayr after the BHA found that Charlotte Jones used her whip 11 times. The suspensions levied caused a number of jockeys to miss out on events at Cheltenham.

“There is simply no excuse for using the whip four or more times above the permitted level,” Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s chief regulatory officer, said. “It was always likely that the disqualification rule would need to be invoked in the early stages of the implementation of the new rules. We hope that this sends a clear message to all jockeys and reinforces this deterrent effect.”

What has the reaction been?

The new rules have been criticised by some prominent figures within racing, including four-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winning trainer Paul Nicholls. The 60-year-old said he was “livid” at the fact that the changes had been made so close to the marquee Gloucestershire event.

“I’m actually disappointed with the way BHA have handled it – talk about shooting the industry in the foot,” Nicholls said to Betfair.

“There are people in the BHA who need to take a real look at themselves. Are they doing the right thing for the industry? Because I think they are letting us down and I think this whole thing is wrong.

“There are a lot of us trainers who have kept quiet and are very, very annoyed with the way it’s been handled and it’s not just trainers, a lot of owners upset about the whole thing and it will drive people away if they are not careful.

“We don’t want to appease people who don’t understand the game. We’ve got to stand up for ourselves and say look this is where we are, it’s not a welfare issue.

“The BHA need a bit of backbone to stand up for us, but nothing seem to be simple with the BHA these days. It’s sad, because they’ve got a tough job to do, but I think honestly they need to take a look at themselves and see what they are doing towards the industry and they need to be a little more proactive at getting things right.”

Conversely, animal rights charities have previously criticised the new rules for not going far enough, believing a total ban on the whip could have been implemented.

“This is an extreme disappointment and a real missed opportunity for horse welfare, and there will be complete disbelief from countless animal lovers by this news,” Emma Slawinski, the RSPCA’s director of policy, prevention and campaigns, said last summer.

“The BHA has missed the chance to improve the welfare of horses in sport – and get rid of the whip for encouragement – something that is long overdue and being demanded by the public.

“By just tinkering with the rules, and allowing the whip to still be used for encouragement, the wellbeing of the horse is depressingly absent from these changes.”