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New whip in use at Assiniboia is king of “pop”

September 9, 2009     E-mail this page to a friend!

Courtesy of Allan Gray, Assiniboia Downs

Ivan Bigg of Assiniboia Downs describes his personal introduction to the cushion whip that motivates horses by producing a popping sound ("Soft Crop" whip above) rather than inducing pain. The new style of whip is now in use at his home track, at Woodbine, and at a few tracks in the U.S.

"Hold out your hand," Darren Dunn commanded, reminding me of an irritated school teacher from a bygone era. "Whap!" came the crack of a jockey's whip across my palm. "Ouch," I grimaced. Then he picked up another whip, a black round one without a loop on the end. "Pop!" came the crack of the second whip. But there was hardly any sting. "That's the whip our jockeys are using now," said the track announcer/director of operations/part-time dominatrix.

Who knew? Assiniboia Downs has been using the gentlest horse whip in the business. It's called a cushion whip, designed to get a horse's attention with its popping sound rather than through abuse. Other tracks have started using the same whip this year: Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Del Mar, and Saratoga. And Woodbine made it mandatory on September 1. But the Downs' whip may still have the edge in gentleness because it is 29 inches long instead of the 30 inches believed to be in use elsewhere.

The Downs has always been on the leading edge of horse welfare. While other tracks were using a traditional 32-inch crop with a leather end tightly sewn together, Assiniboia Downs in 1997 introduced a 29-inch whip with a looped end (the one I was first whapped with). Dunn said the track had to overcome stiff opposition at the time from the Jockeys' Guild. By contrast, the introduction of the new cushion whip this season, he said, has produced "zero incidents." That mirrors the attitude of the public which demanded better treatment of horses following the death of Eight Belles after the 2008 Kentucky Derby when she was struck repeatedly down the stretch with a stiff whip.

Woodbine's new rules on whipping which came into effect on Sept. 1 appear to be the most humane in the business. A jockey may strike a horse a maximum of three times in a row then must allow the horse to take two strides before using the whip again. Fines and suspensions are severe for jockeys contravening that regulation. If those rules were in play at Saratoga last Saturday, Calvin Borel would be facing a hefty penalty because he struck Rachel Alexandra 14 times in a row in the Woodward Stakes--even though it was with the new gentle cushion whip. It will be interesting to see where this whipping stuff goes.