What’s next for harness racing after whip ban?

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PROMINENT harness racing identity Lance Justice has voiced his concerns for the future of the sport following the shock announcement that Australia will become the first country in the world to ban the use of whips in harness racing.

The statement was made by Harness Racing Australia (HRA) last week, with whips to be banned in both racing and training from September 1, 2017.

HRA chairman Geoff Want said it was a decision made for animal welfare reasons.

“Harness racing in Australia has been going for some 200 years and I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that [this] announcement is possibly the most momentous we’ve made in that 200-year-history,” Want said.

“There’ll be no whips allowed on training tracks, on racetracks, stables, in any other application in our industry.

“We are doing it for the image of our sport, we’re doing it for the sustainability of our industry, we’re doing it to secure our future.”

However, Justice, who knew about the ban prior to the announcement, says the decision has been made in haste and without proper consideration for the future of many currently racing.

“I was trying to renegotiate with them to enforce the rule, starting with two-year-olds next season so that no horse which has been racing under whips would be put at a disadvantage,” Justice said.

“It would start off with two-year-olds and then next year those two-year-olds would become three-year-olds and they would never know the whip.

“It will affect horses which have been racing their whole lives – they will wonder what the hell is going on and they just will not go around and produce.

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“Unfortunately, as a result we are going to see a lot of horses which are currently racing using whips retired.”

It has also been announced that a new tool will be implemented in place of a whip, which will be for safety and not performance and will be developed in consultation with the RSPCA.

“They are going to have a device – similar to a whip – but not actually called a whip,” Justice said.

“It will be called a crop, a sway or something else, but no matter how you want to write it, it is going to be a whip.

“It will probably be a modified whip – something lightweight – just to wave through the air and give the horse a little slap.

“It won’t hurt them, but the moment you use it you will be open to criticism from the stewards and you will have to justify yourself.”

Justice said he is concerned for the future of the industry, with the new rules leaving drivers open to criticism if their horses do not run up to standard without a whip.

“When you have got punters putting their money on a race they want to see you excited and pumping your horse to the line.

“(Stewards) will pull you in and fine you if you don’t put your horse under pressure – so it’s going to make the industry look a little bit silly when you aren’t allowed to use a whip to encourage them.

“Basically you are still going to be able to carry a whip out there, but you just wont be able to use it.

“If you do use it for an emergency throughout the race then you are going to have to speak to the stewards after and they will make a decision on whether it was warranted or not.

“I can guarantee nine times out of 10 their answer will be no it wasn’t because they have never driven a horse and wouldn’t know. I can see all sorts of trouble arising for the drivers.”

The leading conditioner, who trained and drove champion pacer Smoken’ Up, says the whip ban has been an overreaction in order to satisfy animal activists.

“It’s an overreaction. What they are trying to do is to be seen as being pro-active, but they are doing stuff which the activists aren’t even asking for.

“Whips aren’t there to belt the horse – the whips are there like a child and a wooden spoon. Every parent has a wooden spoon somewhere in their house, but that doesn’t mean they are hitting their child with it – but the kid knows its there and keeps in line.

“It’s more the threat of the whip which will reprimand them if they step out of line.

“Horses will not try if you hurt them. If you are excited and urging them they will move forward, but if you start hurting them they will go for about 20m and then stop – they pull up.”

Justice made the point that many drivers have already resorted to other measures to avoid striking their horses during the race.

“Ninety per cent of drivers do not hit the horse – they hit the shaft of the sulky.

“Anything you can do to urge the horse without actually hitting them with the whip is good.

“A lot of drivers are really skilful and you can’t tell whether they are striking the horse or the sulky – it’s only when they need to horse to stretch out in the last couple of meters that they will give the horse a tap.

“It has come full circle since the first time I was ever fined in a race – I was driving at a place called Wyalla and I got fined $10 for striking the shaft of the sulky at the end of the race.

“The stewards said because I striked the shaft up the straight and not the horse I deserved a fine.”

With the topic dividing many within harness racing, Justice says the industry must unite in order come up with a solution to the new whip ban.

“You can’t be divided on issues like this – the industry needs to come together and establish some kind of common ground and think of some solutions moving forward.

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“I am fully accepting that we will lose the whips, but we have got to renegotiate because if they take the whips off the older horses we are in big trouble.

“That will also give the drivers the chance to re-adjust to it.

“Another option is to approve the use of wider sulkies so we can get up closer behind the horse during a race.

“That’s what they have in America and Europe and in Denmark they haven’t had whips for 31 years.

“They have all adapted – the sulkies allow them to sit so close behind the horse that they can actually give the horse a tap on the rump when it’s time to go.

“That gives a whole new meaning to the term riding hands and heels – if we are closer to the horse we will have more control and won’t need a whip.

“Being so close to them you will be a part of the horse.”

Harness whip ban not influencing thoroughbred industry

Racing Australia chairman John Messara, who will stand down from his position in a few weeks, says HRA’s decision will have no impact on the use of whips in thoroughbred racing.

“The matter is for them (harness racing) and not for us because they have an entirely different style of whip than ours,” Messara said.

“Their whip is two-and-a-half times the length of ours. Ours is padded. We’ve got whip rules that limit the use of the whip, they have whip rules that have unlimited use. Its apples and oranges.

“I think it’s unfair to compare our whip with harness racing and our whip with the way we used to use it in decades gone by.

“I think there is evolution taking place but I don’t think we’re ready as an industry to put the whip aside.

“We feel that we’ve made sufficient changes to satisfy people and we are satisfied ourselves that the limited use of the whip and the fact that it is padded, I think has changed the entire ethos of what they call the whip.

“We’ve had a review of the whip recently and the use of the whip and shortly we’ll be saying a little bit more about that but there won’t be a while lot of change.

“If there are changes at all it will be to give the stewards a tad more discretion so that they can take the race as a whole rather than one part of the race and look at sort of literal, specific breaches.”

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