Amidst the revelry of the kind of typically wonderful story Grand National is in the habit of churning out, there was an easy-to-miss footnote about jockey Sam Waley-Cohen’s farewell victory aboard Noble Yeats with the last career journey.
Reports of Waley-Cohen’s overuse and misapplication of his whip were widely dismissed as simply “overenthusiastic”; a natural response, perhaps, to an adrenaline-fueled climax to the world’s most famous obstacle course.
That rather sympathetic view of rule-breaking makes light of an act that threatens to damage the sport’s already precarious reputation on its biggest stage.
The rules on the use of the whip in racing are a mixture of objectively stated numbers and subjective statements about the purpose, strength and timing of each blow. For Waley-Cohen’s purposes, they stated that a whip could not be used more than eight times during the race, and only on the horse’s hindquarters.
After jumping the final Aintree fence marginally behind Any Second Now, Waley-Cohen woke his horse in the lead by using the stick twice in the next few furlongs, before falling into a pattern of routine cracks after passing the famous nudge for the race. and hitting her horse another nine times. In his haste, he, too, moved away from the rear quarters to Noble Yeats’s flank.
His punishment of a nine-day suspension for “using his whip above the permitted level after jumping the last fence and in the wrong place on the run to the line” was completely irrelevant given his immediate retirement after clearing the winning post, but a suspension of the midweek cards at Hexham and Southwell is little incentive not to break the rules to win a Grand National anyway.
The Waley-Cohen offensive raised two quite separate questions. The first is the question of any advantage she gained by exceeding whip limits.
With a margin of victory that had stretched to two and a quarter lengths by the time Noble Yeats crossed the line, it would be disrespectful to both horse and jockey to suggest that those extra cracks of the whip played a role in the outcome. But what if he had only won by a nose? Should a jockey who broke the rules in the most marginal win be allowed to walk away with the win?
It’s not hard to imagine the confusion and turmoil it would cause to relegate to first place finish in a race as public as the Grand National. It would be a shame.
But if the rules were more strictly administered and tightly regulated throughout the season, one would expect such breaches to be eradicated on the biggest day of racing. If rules are allowed to be broken and cheaters are allowed to thrive, what is their purpose in the first place?
Which brings us to the second question of why rules exist. The great racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan was not alone in his opinion that “if a horse does not run in two or three strokes, he will not run faster in 10 or 12”.
Assuming the benefit of excessive whipping is negligible, the rules’ main goal is to win an increasingly sensitive image battle, one whose importance may be dismissed by many involved in the sport, but is more worrisome than ever.
It is a desperately sad and unavoidable fact that two of the 40 horses that competed in Saturday’s Grand National, Eclair Surf and Discorama, tragically lost their lives. Although deaths have been reduced following major security disruptions at Aintree Field nearly a decade ago, their deaths again pushed the issue of equine welfare into the public consciousness just over a year after the scandal involving to trainer Gordon Elliott, who was photographed sitting on a dead horse
It is an issue that the authorities are fully aware of. Although there is a widespread belief that the whip, developed with input from the RSPCA and made up of a composite backbone, polymer frame and thick foam padding to absorb energy, does not pose a threat to a horse’s welfare, the negative associations of a human hitting an animal are hard to shake.
Launching a consultation (to be published in the coming months) on the use of the whip last year, British Horseracing Authority chief executive Julie Harrington admitted that “the future health of our sport will depend in part on maintaining the social license. Essentially, public opinion is vital.
For those who are dismissive of giving weight to outsiders ignorant of racing, it’s worth considering the views of John Francome, widely regarded as one of the greatest jockeys in the history of the sport.
Francome has advocated that whips should only be used if it is vital to safety, telling a horse welfare conference in 2015: “No one goes to races to see horses being beaten. They don’t want to see how they beat the horses.”
A week before the Grand National, I visited the yards of Dan Skelton and Charlie Longsdon and saw the high level of care their horses receive. While risk to life is sadly inherent in the sport and impossible to completely eliminate, crucial advances in equine welfare continue to be made each year.
But by allowing a jockey to ignore the rules and flog a horse as much as he wants while winning Britain’s most-watched race, the sport is creating a real problem for itself.