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HORSE RACING; Hoping to Make Jockey's Whip Lightning Rod

* NOTE: This article is being included on our website because, even though it doesn't condemn use of the whip, just questioning its use is going further to raise awareness than most other periodicals have. It is also a plus to be able to reference a NY Times article in further horse racing articles and letters to the editor; for many, the NY Times has 'credibility.'

NY Times
April 30, 2004, Friday
By BILL FINLEY (NYT) 1203 words

LOUISVILLE, Ky., April 29 -- There are few things more exciting in sports than the sight of a group of horses locked in battle in the stretch run of the Kentucky Derby, each one charging toward the wire, their talent and their will carrying them toward the finish line and, for one, the most significant victory in the sport.

Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the best-selling biography ''Seabiscuit: An American Legend'' will watch that scene unfold on television from her home in Washington on Saturday along with millions of others, but she will do so with mixed feelings.

Her attention will be focused not just on the beauty and power of some of the best 3-year-olds in the world, but also on the lashings many will be receiving from their jockeys, some of whom will be flailing away relentlessly with their stiff leather whips. She said she understood that it is part of the sport; for as long as anyone can remember, jockeys have carried whips and have used them in an attempt to get everything out of a horse that it has to offer. But Hillenbrand can't help but wonder: Is there a better way?

''I think Triple Crown season is an ideal time for us to take a second look at racing's attitude about the whip,'' she said in an e-mail message. ''There are myriad reasons why many of us feel that the use of the whip in racing needs to be changed, and one of them is that the manner in which the whip is often used makes a presentation to the public that many find offensive and repellent. It is in this season, when racing draws the most public attention, that the sport ought to be thinking about how it presents itself to the world, especially to potential new fans.''

The success of the ''Seabiscuit'' book and the subsequent movie has given Hillenbrand a platform, and she intends to use it. She does not advocate banning whipping in racing, but she believes that its use should be limited and that there must be rules in place to make the practice more humane. That, she says, would be better for the horses and for a sport that risks turning off potential fans who don't want to see animals subject to what could be viewed as punishment.

She said she was determined to find out everything she can about the subject and come up with practical changes that will be adopted by racing commissions across the country. She has been pleasantly surprised to discover that many in the sport agree.

''It's the 21st century now,'' said Michael Dickinson, the trainer of Tapit, one of the favorites in this year's Derby. ''It's time that we came up with a more humane way of doing this.''

Hillenbrand acknowledged that if jockeys were not allowed to carry a whip their safety would be in jeopardy because they would lose what can be a tool to control an unruly horse. It is the indiscriminate way that the whips can be used that troubles her.

There are few rules in the United States controlling the use of the whip, and the ones that are on the books are rarely enforced. Some jockeys will overuse the whip, hitting their horses well after it is apparent they have no chance to win a race or striking them with such repeated force that they can cause unnecessary injury. At some of the smaller tracks, where the jockeys may be riding with less finesse, it is not uncommon to see a jockey hit a horse virtually every step of the race.

A positive step, Hillenbrand said, would be to institute rules similar to the ones in Britain. There, jockeys are not allowed to raise their arms above their shoulders when hitting a horse and cannot hit them with excessive force or strike them when they are clearly out of contention. Jockeys in Britain can be fined or suspended for whip violations.

''I don't necessarily think any rules need to be changed,'' said the retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who was a consultant on the ''Seabiscuit'' film. ''I've explained that to Laura. We do need to educate riders a little bit better and ask them to exercise a little more common sense. No one should be coming down the stretch hammering away on a horse. But say if you had a rule limiting how many times you could hit a horse in the stretch, then how are you going to explain to the public if that horse got beat by a nose and the jockey had to stop using the whip in the stretch because he had already hit him so many times?''

The trainer Todd Pletcher, who will start Limehouse and Pollard's Vision in the Derby, said: ''I think as a rule our jockeys do a pretty good job of using the whip and not abusing it. I'm sure there are some guys who get a little carried away, but I think as a rule our riders use it well.''

Hillenbrand also advocates whips that do not cause undue pain. The National Steeplechase Association, the governing body of steeplechase racing in the United States, recently established a rule requiring all jockeys to use specially made shock-absorbing whips.

Hillenbrand said she understood that the issue is complicated, that she does not have all the answers and that there is no solution that will make everyone happy. But she said the current system can be improved.

''I have encountered people who loved horses and horse sports, but were revolted by racing because of whips,'' she said. ''I've seen it in my own family. During the filming of the ''Seabiscuit'' movie, my sister took my nieces to Santa Anita for the first time. One of my nieces, a 13-year-old who seemed to be falling for horse racing, saw the way in which horses were being whipped and was horrified.''

Hillenbrand said she would take her recommendations to state racing commissions, asking them to enact and enforce rules governing the misuse of the whip. It is something she wants to do for the sport and for the animals, whether they are Kentucky Derby runners or cheap claimers.

''One of the reasons that I'm doing this now is because I realized that the success of my book has given me a voice in the industry,''

she said. ''I feel very strongly that I am in debt to racehorses for so many wonderful things in my life, including my book, and I want to give something back to them.''

CAPTIONS: Photos: Laura Hillenbrand, the author of ''Seabiscuit: An American Legend,'' wants rules to make the use of whips more humane.

(Photo by Lauren Chelec/Random House)(pg. D4); Jockeys like Javier Santiago, right, use stiff leather whips to urge their horses.

Critics say restrictions should be placed on the use and design of the whips. (Photo by Associated Press); (Photo by Getty Images) (pg. D1)

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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