Friday, May 15, 2015

Will American Pharoah win in spite of the whipping - I think not


In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby while the media was first celebrating the gallant win by American Pharoah and the exciting race for the finish line, did anyone else notice the excessive whipping that took place down the stretch run?

As the following stories tell us, stories that broke only long after the Run for the Roses, the extreme whipping by jockey Victor Espinoza was so bad it triggered an investigation by stewards at the track. American Pharoah seemed distracted during the race and was rewarded by 32 whip lashes down the stretch.

Why did Espinoza whip the horse 32 times when the closest horses were hit only one-third as many times?  It was not the first time his actions have gotten him in trouble.  However, in the end the fact bettors were rewarded for the whipping just shows rules to protect horses are enforced only when the result is what the track wanted.

Back in 1972 jockey Ron Turcotte rode the mighty Secretariat for the first time and whipped him during the workout.  Back at the barn Secretariat responded by biting the jockey.  That was all Penny Chenery, legendary owner, needed to see.  She immediately banned the use of a whip on her horse and he went on to become the greatest triple crown and thoroughbred champion in history, with NO whips.

There is nothing 32 lashes does but take the spirit out of a horse so I suspect American Pharaoh will not win the Preakness but finish third, perhaps in retaliation for the excessive whipping in the Derby. It is worth noting American Pharoah was not touched by a whip his two previous victories. 

My order of finish for the Preakness is 1. Dortmund, 2. Firing Line, and 3. American Pharoah.

Here is what other said about this controversy.

Yahoo News

Great debate: Did Victor Espinoza whip American Pharoah too many times?

By Pat Forde May 14, 2015 3:24 PM Yahoo Sports

BALTIMORE — Is Victor Espinoza the new whipping boy for animal rights activists?
The jockey who rode American Pharoah to victory in the Kentucky Derby tattooed the winner somewhere between 29 to 33 times with his whip in the race – a very high number.  By my estimation, the horses American Pharoah passed in the stretch, Firing Line and Dortmund, were whipped nine and 11 times, respectively, by jockeys Gary Stevens and Martin Garcia. Six years ago, jockey Calvin Borel was criticized in some quarters for whipping super filly Rachel Alexandra about 20 times in the Woodward Stakes.

So 30 or more pops of the crop stand out. Especially in the Kentucky Derby.

That led to some backlash from those who believe Espinoza's whip use was excessive, and that in turn led to defense of the jockey from some members of the racing community. In the current climate, vigorously whipping a horse in the only race many Americans watch all year is bound to create criticism.

Victor Espinoza, left, rides American Pharoah to victory in the Kentucky Derby. (AP)
Enough people already think the sport is sanctioned animal cruelty, especially after the fatal breakdowns of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles in the 2008 Derby. The industry is concerned enough that it has moved to officially phase out the term "whip" and replace it with "riding crop." Given public perception of the sport, Espinoza's ride would qualify as bad optics.

But what appears abusive to the eye may be deceiving. Lighter, more padded whips are all about sound and fury that might signify very little in terms of serious pain inflicted on horses.
Either way, it's a talking point as Espinoza and American Pharoah prepare for the Preakness here Saturday.

The Kentucky racing stewards reviewed Espinoza's ride and ruled that his whip use did not violate state regulations. No disciplinary action was taken. Chief steward Barbara Borden told the Lexington Herald-Leader this week that none of the 12 state veterinarians at the track found any welts on American Pharoah after the race.

The colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, also downplayed the whip use when I asked him last week.
"The whips they use now, they're so light and … [Espinoza] was just keeping him busy, because I think the horse was not responding when he turned for home," Baffert said. "… He was flogging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel. He doesn't really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy."

Fact is, Espinoza's whip use is keeping the racing stewards busy lately. Last week stewards at Santa Anita Park in Southern California fined him $300 for his April 4 ride on Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks. (Why it took more than a month to fine Espinoza for that ride is another story. The timing is oddly coincidental to Churchill's review of the Derby.)

Stewards cited Espinoza for whip use "causing a break in the skin" on Stellar Wind while riding her to victory. The filly's trainer, John Sadler, told, "I don't remember any break on any skin on the horse. This is the first I've heard of it and I don't remember noticing any marks on the horse then."

If Espinoza indeed broke the skin on Stellar Wind, it runs counter to the primary claim made about the whips that were introduced in much of North America in 2009: that they're too light and too padded to actually hurt a horse. Jockeys say the modern whips are more noisemaker than punishment tool, making a louder pop but a lighter impact than the older, heavy whips.

"Since Eight Belles, we worked with the industry on changing to the popper," said Jockeys Guild national manager Terry Meyocks. "It makes more of a noise than anything."

"You have to hit them six times to one time with the old crop," Borel told the Herald-Leader. "That's what it amounts to, because they really don't feel it. … It probably looks worse. With the regular whip, you get their attention when you hit them one time. But this one, you have to keep their attention."

Yet even if the more modern whips are simply doling out love taps, there is a limit. And a new limit will be imposed in California on July 1.

Under those new rules, a jockey cannot whip a horse more than three times in succession without then pausing and allowing the animal to respond. Espinoza's ride on American Pharoah would likely result in a fine, if not a suspension, had it occurred in California two months from now.

And if he were riding in Europe, Espinoza likely would have been outright vilified. France penalizes jockeys who whip a horse more than eight times in a race, and England calls for a steward's review if a rider hits a horse more than eight times.

But here is the existential debate: if the difference between winning the Kentucky Derby or finishing third aboard the favorite is a couple dozen cracks of the whip, which do you choose?

A whole lot of jockeys would rather wear out their whipping arm and risk the consequences afterward. This is a $2 million race, with immortality and a lot of money going to the winner.

And, truth be told, a lot of money going to the bettors. Jockeys are carrying the betting interests of the fans with them on the track, and any suspicion that a rider isn't doing all he can to get his horse home in first will be met with severe criticism by fans with a financial stake in the outcome.

"It's a fine line," Meyocks said. "We're in the gambling business. … You're coming down to the wire; it's important for people betting on the races, plus the owners, trainers and jocks."

One thing the Jockeys Guild will never agree to: an outright ban of the whip. Tiny riders need to have them as a means for controlling large animals moving at high rates of speed. The job already is dangerous enough.

"We have 60 permanently disabled jockeys," Meyocks said. "We could have 160 in a year [if whips are banned]."

Whether you vilify Victor Espinoza's Kentucky Derby ride or defend it, this much is clear: all eyes in Baltimore will be on the jockey's right arm, and how many times he brings his riding crop down on the flank of American Pharoah on Saturday in the Preakness.

Bloomberg Business News
American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory

In his first two races this year, American Pharoah hadn’t felt the sting of the jockey’s whip a single time. In the Kentucky Derby, he was cracked some 32 times.

Those numbers, perhaps more than any other statistic, underscore how hard the big horse had to work to capture America’s most-prestigious race on Saturday. This was not the walkover that some racing touts -- myself included -- had seen as a real possibility. Instead, Pharoah gutted out a grueling, one-length victory that appeared to take a lot out of him.

There were signs early that it wouldn’t be easy.

The horse never really looked comfortable at any point in the race. When the field came off the first turn and entered the backstretch, jockey Victor Espinoza was already pecking at Pharoah to keep up. If you had given me the opportunity to cancel my bet on him right then, I just may have taken it. The front-runners were setting a dawdling pace that Pharoah normally would have matched without the slightest of effort.

Fast forward to the midpoint of the second turn, and Espinoza was already urging him vigorously to go after the two leaders. Seconds later, before they had even straightened out for the home stretch, Espinoza cocked the whip in his right hand and raised it up high.

This was the first time that the jockey had ever felt Pharoah struggling to pull away from his rivals. It clearly made him nervous (he said as much in the immediate aftermath of the race). He responded by flailing away time and time again as his colt slowly edged past Firing Line and Dortmund, the second- and third-place finishers.

Triple Crown?

Thirty-two cracks of the whip are a lot.

Beyond being aesthetically unpleasing to watch, so many blows can take a lot out of a horse, each one acting as a forceful prodding to try harder. And at some point, they stop being effective. Stronger-finishing jockeys, like Joel Rosario, who rode fourth-place finisher Frosted, rely much less on the stick to drive their horses to the finish line. Rosario hit Frosted only four times as he surged toward the leaders late in the Derby.

Sunday morning reports out of Kentucky indicated that the winner came out of the race looking a few pounds lighter. Perhaps he’ll recover in time to capture the Preakness Stakes in two weeks. But would he then be up for winning again just three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown champion since 1978?

I doubt it.

As the tight Derby finish proved, this is a talented crop of three-year-old horses. And some of them -- perhaps Frosted, perhaps sixth-place finisher Materiality -- will bypass the Preakness and await Pharoah at Belmont Park.

There, going the marathon distance of 1 1/2 miles, the effects of those 32 cracks just may catch up to him.

(David Papadopoulos, managing editor for the Americas editing hub at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)

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