A Hypocrite’s Case for a Whip Ban

Two things common to long term racing fans are a love of the sport, and the practise of cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance, in plain language, holds that you’ll alter your beliefs or behaviour to ensure they don’t clash causing mental distress.

For example, you smoke knowing it causes cancer. Cognitive dissonance sets you searching for stories of the 95-year-old who smoked 40 a day, or you tell yourself that if you quit smoking, you’ll pile on weight, putting equal pressure on your health. 

You’re well aware of the dangers of too much alcohol but when it comes to that extra glass you say, ‘I work hard all week, I deserve this!’  or, ‘I don’t smoke or eat badly, I’m entitled to some way of relaxing!’

For us racing folk who see the green screens go up and the weeping groom with the empty bridle . . . What’s on the cognitive dissonance shelf for us? I used to reach to it regularly, but, with me at least, it has steadily lost its effects, almost as though each dose has made it harder for the next one to work. So I just admit that I’m a hypocrite. That I love racing so much, I’m willing to accept the casualty count – the injuries to horse and human, the deaths, the discomfort of knowing that all racehorses work so hard that blood gets into their lungs and affects breathing.

And so to the whip. The amount of cognitive dissonance we’ve needed on this subject has reduced substantially since I began watching racing in the late 1960s. I’ve used the modern whip on myself and had someone hit me with it, and of all the factors in racing that make me uncomfortable, the whip is the least of them. 

But in this, I don’t matter.

And you don’t matter.

What we fans believe about the whip doesn’t matter. What matters is the perception of those who might campaign for a whip ban. I say might because there are millions of voters with much more to think about than a racing whip.  Equally, there will be millions (and more turning eighteen every day) who have no idea that a whip is used on horses to make them run faster. Many will not even realise that racing still takes place in this country outside of the Grand National, of which I’d guess there is a fair number of people who assume that this is kind of like the Boat Race, a quaint annual event to help the old fogeys remember the good times.

These are the people who matter to the future of racing. Yes, these people who ‘are ignorant’, these people who ‘don’t know one end of a horse from another’.  Both those quotes come from reactions to recent pleas by respected journalists Kevin Blake and James Willoughby, who speak with admirable passion on how we should rally to defend whip use.  But they stand like Travis and Bowie at The Alamo, much heart and courage but insufficient troops to rally. 

However many supporters racing can muster, whatever stats we can quote about the second-largest spectator sport etc will be as nothing against ‘these people’, an electorate with a cause.

These people who go about their business today unaware of our in-fighting about the whip, are the same people who, five years ago, were unaware of what a FOBT machine was.

One determined individual with a small budget then set out against a much bigger and richer battalion than racing is – the major bookmakers – and decided he’d like to see the end of FOBTs and the billions they were earning for the bookies.

His name was Derek Webb. Heard of him? Probably not. Nor had the bookmakers, so they laughed him off as a silly man with few resources and a no-hope cause. They did nothing to defend themselves. Nothing. For years. When it was too late, they began desperately gathering facts – facts about problem gambling, about the true percentages, about how there’d been no real change in gambling’s effects on society, about how much they invest in prevention, about everything they put into communities. Then, more desperately, about high street closures, lost jobs, a reduction in tax income for the government, blah, blah, blah.

They were too late. Mister Webb won. David beat Goliath. FOBTs will start being wheeled out of shops in spring, and P45s will be sent and many betting shop doors will close permanently. 

What happened? The bookies had facts, didn’t they? And we in racing have facts on the whip, and research, and RSPCA approval blah, blah, blah.

Sadly for the poor bookies and sadly for us, facts carry little weight against the emotions of the electorate. Ask the big bookies. Ask Hillary Clinton. Ask the barristers who’ve bombarded juries for centuries with facts only for the case to be decided on emotions.

Facts do not win arguments with the public. Emotions win. Especially when the object in dispute is called a whip (whatever it’s made of) and the subject is half a ton of equine magnificence already running its heart out before a jockey starts whipping it when at its most tired.

Wait! You say – they don’t run their hearts out! A lot of them are quite lazy actually, and they need to be wakened up!

Ah, so the poor horse doesn’t want to go through the pain of excess exertion so you force it to do so by whipping it?

No! The whip doesn’t hurt!

So, why use it?

It makes a scary noise.

So rather than physical pain you’re inflicting mental pain?

You see where this is going?  Which will raise the strongest emotions in our typical electoral sample – a man losing his wages every week on a FOBT or a racehorse being hit with a whip while already doing its apparent best?

We must stop producing facts about the whip. We should cease parading our collective cognitive dissonance with campaigns that boast about how loved racehorses are, how many swimming pools and solariums they have access to (I’m with the BHA on many things, but this strategy is a huge mistake imo) how many top vets look after them etc.

We must, above all, stop believing that facts will win the argument.  In this two-horse race, facts are 100/1 versus the emotions of the British public.

Part two tomorrow where I’ll cover how our decision on the whip will fit with the overall strategy of keeping racing going for as long as possible

Part one of this article raised a debate on twitter. I ought to clarify two things:

1 My FOBT analogy was not intended to compare FOBTs with the whip as a political issue, it was intended to highlight the fact that one person on a mission can utilise the emotional aspect of the subject to gain huge support.

Whatever your position on FOBTs and problem gambling, the facts did not merit a change in the law. But Mister Webb harnessed the emotions of the public via media and people were soon writing to their MP.

Is racing certain that its own Derek Webb won’t come along in the next year or two with an anti-whip campaign?

2 I am not anti-whip. Its use in a finish doesn’t bother me in the least and the safety aspect of carrying a whip is paramount and one I’d fight for.

With those clarifications made and the subject of emotions V facts covered, I’ll move on to welfare in general and the whip in particular. When I talk about a whip ban in this article I mean a ban on its use as an instrument of coercion (I dislike the use of ‘encouragement’ as far as the whip goes. It’s a euphemism that betrays the defensiveness and fear racing feels when the whip issue is raised).

Across the board, welfare for racehorses in the UK is as close to beyond criticism as you can get in a sport carrying such inherent risk. There are questions to be answered with some ‘outliers’ like the loss of 7 horses at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. But all in all, the sport as a whole has seen deaths on the racecourse steadily reduce over the years.

In 2017, there were 91,360 starts. 167 of them resulted in fatal injury. Fewer than you thought? (Source- The Guardian, Greg Wood)

Racing deaths are seen as the elephant in the room, but they need not be. If a number come together, as they did at Cheltenham, then every resource ought to be thrown at unearthing flaws in the system and fixing them.

But we should not be afraid to be confronted by campaigners on this subject of equine racing fatalities. They are, I believe, easier to explain than the use of the whip.

Racing’s position, in short, ought to be this: we are running a sport which has existed for 2,000 years. Despite the huge progress made in improving the safety of horses and jockeys, and reducing casualty numbers, there are still risks attached to the sport of racing. Our job is to continue trying to minimise those risks, and to ensure the injured receive fast and effective care.

On this basis, let’s take an imaginary Q and A.

So, how many horse deaths are acceptable to you before this awful so called sport is outlawed?

None. The death or injury of any horse is not acceptable to us.

So, how can you rationalise your involvement in horse racing? If it’s not acceptable to you, close it down.

We love the sport and we love the horses. Racehorses are bred for nothing else except racing and they have done that for centuries. Our job is to try to make sure that the sport continues for centuries more. Our task here is to convince the British public that aside from the sadness and loss of under 0.2% of starters (2017 figures) the sport contributes greatly to the wellbeing of many thousands of horses, and people, and to society itself.

How on earth can racing contribute to society?

Well, at its most basic, a well trained thoroughbred, even one standing still in a field is a wonderful thing to see. People marvel at the sight. Racehorses have been the subject matter for great painters and writers. In flight, they are magnificent creatures. And watching these athletes race against each other to prove who is best, is an unforgettable experience for anyone who has seen a race on the racecourse.

In that case, let them stay in the field and be magnificent there. Let people enjoy watching them gallop of their own free will.

Well, that would be impossible. These horses live for racing. It is precisely what they are bred for in a breeding process that has been refined ever since the first horse race. If racing did not exist racehorses would not exist.

Well, somebody could breed them just for use as riding horses or as pets, couldn’t they?

Everything in the genetic makeup of a racehorse is set to competitive, high speed racing. Breeding them to live in a field would be like putting them in prison. Their nature is to run, to run fast, to compete. And they can be vey expensive athletes to breed and keep in training. We don’t believe that anyone who knows and loves horse racing would consider breeding a racehorse to keep in a field. That is what they would see as cruelty.

But at least there’d be no horses dying on a racecourse.

And no more born.

Well, that’s just one of those things, isn’t it? A price has to be paid for everything.

Depends on your viewpoint. What would society think? How would the British people feel about it? Going back to those figures, in 2017 91,360 runners set off to compete in a race. 91,192 returned to their stables, to their trainers, grooms, owners, many of those horses well known and loved by the racing public. Some of them known by the non racing public.

The 168 who did not go home were mourned. But they gave an awful lot of joy in living, and died doing what they were bred for and what they loved. Is that a price worth paying?

No. I still say ban it.

Well, if it’s banned, not only will racehorses cease to exist in Britain, but the public, society, will miss what might have been. There would never be another Red Rum or a Desert Orchid, A Nijinsky or a Frankel, an Aldaniti or a Kauto Star. Racehorses, the people closely associated with them – Lester Piggott, Bob Champion, Ginger McCain, Jenny Pitman, the great races, The Derby, The Grand National, The Cheltenham Gold Cup, all gone. All of them, horses, races and people who have made such an emotional impact on Britain and the British people. Finished forever.

We love racing and we love racehorses. We care for them not because we can benefit from winning bets or prize money, but because of their characters, their beauty and their courage. We work day in and day out to keep them as safe and well as we can, and will always do that. Do we still believe the risks are worth it? We do, and so long as we can continue improving safety and reducing casualty figures, we always will.

The important question is, do you, do the British people still want this particular part of their heritage to carry on, to produce the future Red Rums, the Desert Orchids, The Derby and Grand National winners? If you do, we promise to continue the work we’ve been doing for many years – to protect, nurture and look after racing, its heritage, and its wonderful horses.

The Whip

Now, I’m going to assume that the above stance has been well received and the public have a greater understanding and acceptance of the risk in racing.

The core of the above, although never mentioned, is that we do not compel horses to race or to jump. Accidents happen, they are outside our control for the most part, and if we could reduce them further we would.

Now, contrast this position with the one we have on the whip. Whipping horses in a finish does not happen by accident, it happens by design. By the design of the very people who mounted that emotional defence of racing and its fatalities.

Now, tell me how to make that gel with the public.

Never mind the argument about lazy horses, and wanting to see the best one can offer. If a horse is lazy, let him lose the race. If those who always give their best and do not need the whip applied win many more races, good. It’ll improve the breed.

Don’t tell me the whip doesn’t hurt, because the horse cannot offer his opinion on that. Whatever it does, it prompts a flight reaction which, I imagine as a layman, springs from some primal fear.

Go back to the fatalities defence where our whole case is that we do everything in our power to protect and nurture, mostly because we love these horses. Now have another go at reconciling that with a policy that involves instilling fear?

Fatalities can be staunchly defended with facts and figures and the case for continuing racing for decades to come can be made both factually and with considerable emotion. Anyone following Kayley Woollacott on Twitter and seeing the love her daughter Bella, who is three, has for the massive Lalor (and he for her) must think about how Kaylee feels sending that horse out over fences. A mixture of terror at potential loss for her and for Bella, and huge optimism and excitement about finding out just what her champion can do.

Ever heard Richard Pitman talking at length about Crisp’s Grand National defeat? Ever read the story of Sea Biscuit or Phar Lap? We must tell these tails widely to make people realise that if you take the time to get into it, racing is addictive and life-enhancing.

But how do we go spreading the faith while every day in every race the public see horses being whipped?

We have a great sport that should be easy to sell, but the sales framework is rendered almost laughable by the the anti-USP, the whip.

Look back at that fatalities defense; I believe it to be honest and strong with no spin. No fear figures about job losses, businesses closing, the effect on the economy or all the other usual suspects. Just hard questions answered with the truth.

We ought to bolster that defense, that reputation of tireless protector of the racehorse and racing by voluntarily making all whip use for safety only. That seals a major leak in our case, perhaps the only leak in the vessel. And, combined with the right PR, turns public perception 180 degrees.

Joe McNally

December 2018

The comments section is open


  1. Excellent piece,although I think the facts on banning FOBT’s outweighed the facts on keeping them.
    Why did the tote chose to ruin the once excellent scoop 6.


  2. Pointless article built on a fictitious view that the public want the whip banned. The vast majority of the general public aren’t aware or don’t care and you’re naive to think that those that will campaign extensively to get the whip banned won’t stop there. Racing should be resolute in its defence of the sport in its current guise and articles like this don’t help. It’s arrogant opportunism by the writer looking for support & notoriety outside of racing.


    1. I don’t think those that campaign to get the whip banned will stop there. That wasn’t what I said and I don’t know how you came to that conclusion when my whole point was the opposite: give up the whip before anyone starts a campaign. That way you neuter potential objections in advance.

      So, I need neither support nor notoriety, though it seems you need some basic education in understanding what you read.


    2. Forgive me for saying so, but I think you’re talking nonsense, the complete opposite of the arguments in the blog. There will be a time, soon, when there will be enough people demanding the ban of the whip and an intelligent, coherent argument has to be made. The blog makes a compelling contribution to the discussion. Your use of the word “arrogant” indicates an ignorance of the issues.


  3. Excellent post Joe, honest and bracing. I’m a relative newcomer to racing and I echo your judgment about the public perception of the sport. I think old time fans forget how strange the whole setup seems to the uninitiated! Like it or not we have to deal with racing as it is not how we wish it to be. We can’t continue to ignore the gut reactions of outsiders, however ignorant or misguided we believe them to be. Thanks for the food for thought!


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