Use of whip reviewed by horse racing authorities

By Joe WilsonBBC Sport

This is one of British horse racing's most traditional weeks - Royal Ascot gets under way on Tuesday as the racecourse celebrates its 300th year.

Yet a fundamental part of the sport is under scrutiny like never before, with the issue of whether jockeys should be allowed to whip their horses to make them run faster being hotly debated.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is in the middle of its most comprehensive review into the use of the whip.

And Jamie Stier, the director of raceday operation and regulation at the BHA, is keen to ensure that the right decision is reached.

''The parameters are very wide and nothing's been ruled in or ruled out," says Stier.

"You have to embrace all the public opinion you can to assist you in positioning your sport. This is not about trying to satisfy a secular interest, it is about the good of racing.''

This year's Grand National provided a high-profile example of whip misuse.

Winning jockey Jason Maguire was banned for five days for excessively using his whip in the closing stages on board Ballabriggs and the horse required oxygen after crossing the line.

The BHA claims whip use is fundamentally not cruel and points to the modifications of design which have softened it in recent years.

Indeed it is rare, although not impossible, for a horse to be physically marked by a whip.

But welfare groups are concerned that tired horses are forced beyond their limits as they are cajoled at the end of races.

World Horse Welfare is taking part in the review and its chief executive Roly Owers questions whether the current rules are sufficient.

''It's clearly not working with some of the jockeys and the penalty system has to change behaviour because what racing's got to show is that welfare of the horse is paramount," he comments.

"If they don't show that then racing loses integrity, and then they are in trouble.''

Meanwhile the issue for those who run racecourses is whether their paying customers are being put off.

Towcester, in Northamptonshire, estimates it has a potential 500,000 customers in its catchment area, but at best it can expect 7,000 at any given meeting.

General manager Kevin Ackerman thinks he knows why.

''We believe a large proportion of people are not coming because of their view that the use of the whip is cruel.'' he says.

In an attempt to corroborate this theory the racecourse conducted its own survey, which I observed.

It was limited in scope, and deliberately targeted women as 'non-typical' racegoers, but some of the responses were interesting.

While most men indicated they did not have a problem with watching horses being whipped, the majority of women indicated they would rather see it stopped.

One even said two of her female friends had not come to the meeting purely because of their objection to whipping.

The BHA is promising a more extensive survey and there are some radical options open to them.

Everyone in racing accepts a jockey must carry a whip as a safety precaution. They might, for example, need to guide their horse away from danger in an emergency.

Yet in parts of Scandanavia, where racing is admittedly limited, jockeys are effectively banned from using the whip to encourage a horse.

Towcester wants to employ a similar system and the BHA is not ruling that out.

Equally, winning riders could find themselves stripped of prize money if they succeed by overusing the whip.

Jockeys may want to preserve their right to encourage a horse, but racing is aware that public attitudes are changing and cannot simply be ignored.