Harness-racing panel calls for whip ban

Kentucky racing regulators took steps Monday toward a first-in-the-nation ban on whipping practices that often result in cuts and welts on harness-racing horses.

A safety and welfare committee voted to recommend to the full Kentucky Horse Racing Commission regulatory changes that would ban all one-handed whipping in Standardbred races.

Drivers would be required to keep a rein in each hand and their hands in front of their bodies to prevent them from leaning out to whip down the sides of the horse.

"Snappers" — loose strands at the end of the whip — also will be banned.

"Thank you on behalf of everyone in harness racing in Kentucky for what you've just done," said Alan Leavitt, a prominent harness-racing owner and breeder who has pushed for the bans on what he called abusive practices.

Bill Napier, executive secretary of the Kentucky Harness Horsemen's Association, said that recently at The Red Mile he saw a driver hit a horse 25 times from the head of the stretch to the wire.

"It'll make you cringe," Napier said.

Kentucky already fines drivers for injuring horses through whipping, but the changes will add stiff new penalties. Drivers could be suspended for 10 to 30 days and fined $100 to $13,000 for a first offense. They could be suspended for as long as a year and fined as much as $20,000 for using a whip with a snapper.

The practices are banned in Europe but have become common in the U.S. The KHRC will consider the changes at its next meeting on Sept. 22.

The committee also considered possible changes to Kentucky's Thoroughbred whip rule but postponed recommending changes. Keeneland will conduct two races each day of its fall meet with experimental, more humane versions of riding crops and get feedback from the jockeys who use them.

At its meeting next month, the safety committee hopes to work through a recommendation on "safety reins." The unbreakable reins could prevent catastrophic injuries to jockeys and exercise riders. California is likely to vote this week to begin a yearlong phase-in of their use.

Dr. Mary Scollay, Kentucky's equine medical director, updated the committee on the new equine injury tracking database. As many as 64 racetracks in the United States and Canada are scheduled to report injuries that occur during races. Scollay wants to expand data collection to injuries during training, but she acknowledged that it is likely to run into resistance from trainers and vets, who have privacy concerns.

The committee also discussed problems associated with shock-wave therapy. It uses low energy waves to stimulate healing in tissue but can be used to mask even serious injuries and is virtually undetectable.

Vets are required to report its use, and horses are not allowed to run for 10 days afterward, but committee member Dr. Foster Northup said reporting isn't always happening. It's illegal for anyone other than a vet to use the devices, but apparently others are using them, he said.