Santa Anita Parks decision to ban the whip could cause a chain reaction but it is a big leap to suggest whipping played a part in any of the 22 fatalities at the track this year
For the first time in three weeks horses will race at Santa Anita Park in California on Friday, beneath the spectacular backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. The course has been closed since 5 March to allow officials to inspect and renovate the dirt track following the death of 22 horses when either training or racing in the first nine weeks of the 2019 season. The hope is that one of the racing worlds most cherished courses can begin to move on from a traumatic start to the year.
But while the unforgettable setting endures, the racing itself will look quite different if The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, gets its way. In what it described as an open letter about the future of thoroughbred racing in California, published on 14 March, TSG made two radical proposals for the resumption of racing at Santa Anita and its other track in the state, Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco.
The first, an immediate ban on the use of all race-day medication including the anti-bleeding drug Lasix, has since been watered down and will start with the two-year-old crop in 2020. The second, though, seems likely to apply from Friday: a ban on the use of the whip by jockeys for anything but corrective safety measures.
If so, Santa Anita will be the first track in a major racing nation to ban the whip for encouragement at any stage of a race. It will also set a precedent that racing regulators around the world will struggle to ignore. If Santa Anita can get by without the whip in the closing stages of a race, why cant everyone?
The British Horseracing Authority will be watching with interest. We talk regularly to our colleagues in other countries where racing is held, a spokesperson said this week. Events have moved quite quickly in recent weeks in California and we look forward to catching up at the next opportunity to hear more of their plans.
There is a belief among some followers of British racing that a similar move here is only a matter of time. They may well see Santa Anitas attempt to ban the whip as the first domino to topple, with a whip-free conclusion to the Grand National and the Derby inevitably somewhere down the line.
But first the whip ban will need to stick at Santa Anita and to be seen as a success in both competitive and commercial terms. Will the form stand up? Will the jockeys adapt? And will punters still watch and bet on whipless races to the same extent at all or any level?
For the moment this abrupt and very radical change of policy will be limited to Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields and is unlikely to extend even to other TSG-owned tracks elsewhere, such as Pimlico in Maryland, which stages the second leg of Americas Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. As an internal house rule, it is also unlikely to apply to the Breeders Cup, which returns to Santa Anita this November for a record 10th time and to all intents hires the track as a venue for its own, separate event.
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