The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Monday approved a ban on abusive whipping in harness racing, making the state the first North American racing jurisdiction to outlaw "side" whipping.
"Once again, the KHRC has moved forcefully to enhance the safety of horse racing," said Gov. Steve Beshear in a statement. "I am proud that Kentucky is at the forefront of states acting on behalf of the humane treatment of trotters and pacers."
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The new rules will go into effect in spring 2009, after a public comment period.
Drivers will no longer be allowed to lean out whip horses as the come down the stretch, something that has become routine practice in the United States. They will be required to keep one rein in each hand.
"Snappers" -- strands on the end of a whip that can cause welts -- also are banned.
The new rules also carry stiff penalties, believed to be among the toughest in harness racing. Drivers could face fines of $100 to $13,000 and suspensions of 10 to 30 days for a first whipping offense. Use of a snapper could result in a fine up to $20,000 and suspension for up to a year.
Commission member Alan Leavitt, a Standardbred owner and breeder who has pushed for the new rules, said the move is necessary to help the sport re-establish itself.
"I've been in harness racing for 50 years and over that time I've watched abusive whipping become a cancer on our business," Leavitt said. "And until we get rid of it, it's going to be impossible to increase our fan base and we're not going to be able to attract new owners. People don't want to see it."
Both the Hambletonian Society and the U.S. Trotting Association support the new rule and are lobbying for more jurisdictions to adopt it.
Leavitt and his wife, Meg Jewett, are among the owners of this year's Hambletonian winner, Deweycheatumnhowe.
The horse's driver and trainer, Ray Schnittker, also a co-owner, expressed regret after the race for hitting Dewey once in the stretch as he fended off a charge from another horse, Crazed, even though the move in the New Jersey race was legal.
Leavitt said Schnittker told him, "I shouldn't have done it. He was giving me all that he had."
"I wish he hadn't done it, Meg wishes he hadn't ... Ray wishes he hadn't," Leavitt said. He said the horse was unharmed.
The Hambletonian is first jewel of the trotting Triple Crown.
Dewey will race Saturday at The Red Mile in Lexington in preparation for the Kentucky Futurity heats next week. The Kentucky Future on Oct. 4 is the second leg of the trotting Triple Crown.