LOS ANGELES -- Jockeys riding in California wouldn't be able to strike a horse to make it run faster or be allowed to whip in an overhand motion under a proposed amendment approved by the California Horse Racing Board on Thursday.
The rule now goes to a 45-day public comment period after which the regulatory body would have to vote again. It could be months before the new rule takes effect.
The rule would make California the most restrictive racing state for the use of crops, commonly called whips. It would amend a rule imposed earlier this year by the racing board that restricts jockeys from using their crop unless it's necessary to control a horse for safety reasons.
In 2014, the board passed a rule that jockeys could strike a horse no more than three times in succession before giving it a chance to respond.
The new amendment would limit jockeys to striking a horse no more than two times in a row without giving a horse a chance to respond before using the crop again or no more than six times in a race, excluding showing or waving the crop or tapping the horse on the shoulder.
Jockeys or exercise riders who violate the rule would be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and a minimum suspension of three days.
They wouldn't be penalized if, in the opinion of the stewards, the use of the crop was necessary for the safety of the horse or rider.
“We've just passed the most restrictive whip rule in North America, probably, maybe in the world,” new board chairman Greg Ferraro said. “I realize at this time no one is happy, including me. We've gotten to the point where we had to move. Somebody has to be first. We're first."
Earlier this month, New Jersey proposed a rule that would prohibit the use of the crop except when necessary for the safety of the animal and rider. It is currently in the public comment stage.
In March, after a series of horse deaths at Santa Anita, the California board unanimously passed a rule that restricted jockeys from using their crops unless it’s necessary to control the horse for safety reasons.
A second board vote after the 45-day public comment period was required for the rule to go into effect, but a problem occurred. The state’s Office of Administrative Law rejected language in the rule about jockeys’ purses being disqualified, and the board had to amend it.
Three possible amendments went before the board at its meeting held at Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County. The board voted on the third amendment.
Jockeys would be restricted to using the crop in an underhanded position with it always at or below the shoulder level of the rider. They could show or wave the crop without touching the horse and could tap the horse on the shoulder with the crop in the down position but must have both hands holding the reins and touching the neck of the horse.
Darrel McHargue, chief steward for the board and a retired jockey, called the use of whips “a worldwide problem."
“We're making steps in the right direction," McHargue told the board, “and I hope the sport will take some actions to see that this rule is implemented."
Many jockeys and trainers contend that being unable to strike a horse will lead to chaos and unpredictability during races. However, board members and racing executives say the public demands more humane treatment of horses at a time when the industry is under fire for its treatment of the animals.
Several animal rights activists angrily spoke to the board during the public comment session, with some demanding that horse racing be abolished in California.
Veteran jockey Aaron Gryder told the board that he agrees modifications in the use of the crop are necessary, but he said, “It's not a weapon. It's a tool that's there to help guide, communicate, and keep a horse's attention. It's not there to hurt a horse."
Craig Fravel, CEO of racing operations for The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields in California, told the board there are no international standards on whipping.
“Our position is less is better," he said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals disagreed with the proposed rule change.
“Beating horses to make them run faster should never be allowed, under any circumstances," PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a statement. “Whipping a horse two times in succession instead of three is still beating a horse. Striking a horse with the whip in the downward position is still beating a horse. The California racing industry is arguing to be allowed to abuse horses, and the public and state legislators must not stand for it. PETA certainly won't."