Talk Abroad: Whipless Racing and Retroactive Testing

Most of us are focused on what’s happening on our home turf, whether it’s our stables, our racetracks, or issues of national significance affecting all of horse racing in the U.S.

With the proliferation of social media and other cyber sources, the amount of racing information available for consumption can be mind boggling. It’s difficult enough to keep abreast of the news of racing in the U.S., never mind Europe and other racing programs across the globe.

That’s why, every so often, I’ll use this space to comment on issues arising around the globe pertaining to our sport. I’ll curate items for you that I believe should make you stop and ponder. Once in a while, I’ll even venture outside of horse racing and take a look at the regulation of other sports. Who knows, maybe some of what is going on in the wide world of sports might be applicable to us?

Earlier this month two items out of England captured my attention.

Whipless Racing

On August 15, 2018, Racing Post published an article announcing a proposed new racing venture in England that, if successful, would launch in July 2019. This venture would entail a series of races — none of which would utilized the whip. The decision to disallow the whip was made to entice financial backers. Evidently, this is a day and age when money might not follow perceived acts of cruelty.

Veteran sportswriter and iconoclast Bill Finley had this to say in a feature for the Thoroughbred Daily News, titled, “For a Sport Struggling with its Image, Whipping Must Go”:

Imagine, if you would, a sport without whipping. What exactly would happen that would be so terrible? With every horse on a level, whipless playing field, no one would have an advantage over anyone else. The only horses that might be affected are the lazy sorts that might need some encouragement. Too bad. A lazy horse should be at a disadvantage because they weren’t made with the same heart and fighting spirit as some of their competitors.

My Commentary: I am very excited about this test for whipless racing. This experiment will be watched closely across the globe. I’ve heard jockeys opine that some horses “need” the whip to get the best out of them. I believe their reasoning is analogous to the rationale of horsemen who believe that some horses “need” Lasix. Whether a few horses might benefit should not be the issue.

The criteria should be conducting a sport based solely on the innate abilities of the contestants. If that’s the criteria, then no drugs, no whips.

Will there ever come a time when racing’s response to equine welfare issues are in sync with the sensibilities of the American public in the 21st century?

Retrospective testing

The same week as the news of the possibility of a series of whipless racing, Robin Bastiman was banned from racing for three years for injecting a horse on race day in April 2016.

The case developed in an interesting fashion.

The British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) found cobalt in a sample that was saved and retroactively tested. At the time of the race in question, the BHA had not promulgated any threshold for cobalt. They were, however, able to prove by Mr. Bastiman’s own admission that the horse was give an injection on race day, contrary to England’s rules of racing.

In the August 13, 2018, issue of The Guardian, Chris Cook writes:

Racing’s rules say horses must not be given anything more than normal feed and water on a raceday and that was evidently in Bastiman’s mind as he began to give evidence. “I’m not going to inject a horse on a raceday,” he told the panel. “It’s against the rules!”

He was almost immediately directed to the transcript of an interview he had given a BHA investigator, a transcript he had previously signed when asked to agree it was accurate. In it, he described how, throughout his 40-year career, he would routinely inject horses with vitamin B12, especially if they were “finnicky” eaters.

“I’d probably bang 20ml into them in the morning,” Bastiman was quoted as saying. “Yeah, even if the horse is running. It’s like a boost.”

Eventually, Bastiman had to accept that he had lied in his earlier evidence and in fact had given B12 injections to horses that then ran in races later that day.

BHA's chief regulatory officer, Brant Dunshea, said, “This case illustrates how the use of storing and retrospectively testing samples is an effective method for detecting and deterring the use of prohibited substances in British horseracing, as has been seen in other sports. It sends a clear message for anyone who feels they can evade detection by using substances or methods which they believe are currently not detectable or tested for.”

My Commentary: There are two takeaways here. First, a three-year suspension for a race-day injection is certainly indicative of England’s regulators taking race-day administrations very seriously. Second, the benefits of retrospective testing are not the sole domain of other sports.

The BHA has the two primary proactive elements for deterring the unauthorized administration of foreign substances: significant penalties and an enhanced detection method in retrospective testing.

Maybe we in the U.S. should consider the same.

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