Cheltenham whip rules sparks controversy as ‘not a welfare issue’

Cheltenham Festival 2023: All you need to know

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Each year, hundreds of thousands of fans flock to Cheltenham Festival to watch the 28 races spread across four days. But this year, the buildup was muddied for some by the controversial new whip rules that were introduced in British racing on February 13, just one month before the event began. Here, takes a closer look at the rules and the controversy. 

Why do jockeys use whips? 

The new rules — which could lead to disqualification if there is a serious breach — immediately caused a stir with 20 jockeys found to have broken the rules in the first week of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) introducing them. 

Some say the whip — which is typically up to 70cm long, foam-padded and energy absorbent — does not cause pain to horses with it being a crucial tool for the rider, but the Royal Society of the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) argues that horses can feel pain. 

Opponents also believe it should not be used to make the horse ride faster. But the BHA say it can be used to trigger a horse to “gear change” but should not be used with excessive force. The whip can also be used for safety purposes such as to keep the horse’s attention or to steer it.  

What are the new rules? 

In 2011, new rules were introduced, restricting the number of times the whip could be used in one race. This has now been reduced again by one to seven in jumps races and six in flat races. 

If a jockey goes above the limit, they can be suspended and if they use the whip four or more times above the limit, their horse is disqualified entirely. 

Offences are referred to the Whip Review Committee which not only examines how many times the whip is used but other factors such as how much force is used and where the whip was used. 

In February, just a week after the new rules were introduced, Lunar Discovery became the first horse to be disqualified for a breach of the new whip rules after jockey Charlotte Jones used the whip 11 times. 

What does each side of the debate say? 

Paul Nicholls OBE told Betfair ahead of the Cheltenham Festival getting underway that he was “disappointed” with the way BHA had handled the matter. 

Instead, he felt that by introducing the rules so close to the event the industry was “shooting itself in the foot” with it bowing to the wrong person as it is not a “welfare issue”. 

He added: “There are people in the BHA who need to take a real look at themselves and think are they doing the right thing for the industry because I think they’re letting us down…

“This whole thing is wrong. I get that we have to be a little bit careful with the whip, but we don’t want to appease people who don’t understand the game.”

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However, horse racing consultant Dene Stansall told GB News that he disagrees, explaining that the “very cruel implement” can hurt the horse. 

Mr Stansall, who works with Animal Aid, said on Saturday: “The idea that you actually hit an animal in public is distasteful for the vast majority of British people.” 

He stressed that horses occasionally get hit in the face with the whip and also wear a bit in the mouth, adding: “It should be banned because jockeys don’t stick to the rules.”

Last year, 429 whip offences were committed by jockeys, according to Animal Aid statistics, with 100 committing two or more offences. 

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