LONDON, United Kingdom — In Britain, horse racing is wildly popular. Millions of fans — including Her Majesty — pack the nation’s racecourses every year to watch equine athletes and their riders compete.
But this season, the Sport of Kings is embroiled in a heated debate over the jockey’s most iconic tool: the whip.
In October, the sport’s governing body unveiled new regulations halving the number of times a jockey can strike a horse during a race, with strict penalties including suspensions and loss of prize money.
Since then, the season has been a blur of suspensions, angry protests and rule revisions. The head of the jockeys’ union has called it “the most challenging time for jockeys for many decades.”
The whip became a public issue in Britain this April following the Aintree Grand National, the sport’s premiere event. Many spectators were horrified by winning jockey Jason Maguire’s flailing of Ballabriggs, his clearly-exhausted mount, in the final stretches of a race in which two horses sustained fatal injuries.
The wince-inducing race earned Maguire a five-day suspension for excessive whip use and prompted soul-searching within racing. “We have a public perception issue, and we need to protect the future of the sport,” said Robin Mounsey, spokesman for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which regulates the sport.
More from GlobalPost: Cameron's anti-Europe decision: was it a good one?
More British attend horse racing than other sport beside soccer. Queen Elizabeth II is an ardent fan and racehorse owner, as was her late mother. Yet the sight of a jockey beating a horse makes many squeamish. In a BHA poll conducted after the Grand National, 57 percent of respondents said the whip should be banned.
An image problem could have far more dire consequences than just bad press. There were fears that horse racing could go the way of fox hunting, another heralded sport whose history in Britain stretched back 500 years. Hunting with hounds was banned in England and Wales in 2004 after years of vigorous lobbying by animal-rights activists.
On Oct. 10, after a yearlong discussion with jockeys, trainers, veterinarians and others, the BHA unveiled its new rules. Effective immediately, jockeys could strike horses no more than eight times in a jump race and seven times on a flat course, with no more than five of those hits allowed in the last furlong. (Previous rules allowed 16 hits for jump courses and 14 for flat.) The rules carried a mandatory minimum suspension of five days for violators. Jockeys who incurred a ban of three days or more would also have to give up their prize money and riding fees, with penalties doubled for second offenses.
On the first day the rules were in place, two top jockeys received suspensions. Jockeys protested the new system as more riders fell afoul of the rules. Champion jockey Richard Hughes quit the sport in protest after receiving two suspensions in the first week.
“I’d rather sweep roads than do half a job,” he told the Racing Post.
More from GlobalPost: Sarkozy slams Cameron on UK euro zone opt-out
The jockeys’ anger was less over the rules than the severity of the penalties, said Kevin Darley, chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association and a champion rider during his 32-year career. “Everyone said, ‘Surely jockeys can count to seven,’” Darley said, but in the heat of a race “it’s easier said than done.”
Faced with threats of a jockey strike, the BHA reversed itself on Oct. 21, removing the cap on hits in the last stretch and softening the penalties. Then on Nov. 10, following more protests by the jockeys’ union, the BHA eased the penalties even more. The minimum ban for offenders is now only two days, and prize money is at risk only with a ban of seven days or more. Race stewards also now have discretion to waive a suspension if a jockey just exceeds the permitted number of hits, and jockeys can defer their suspensions to compete in major races. (Hughes returned to riding after the changes were announced.)
In an open letter to the BHA, equine consultant David Muir of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) called the changes “a serious backward step.” Other whip opponents expressed dismay as well.
“It’s business as usual,” said Fiona Pereira, Animal Aid campaigner. “The penalties aren’t significant enough to deter them.”
Jockeys say that the whip is a vital tool for safety and performance. “Horses have a mind of their own,” Darley said. “Just a little slap down the shoulder with the new air-cushioned whip, it just focuses them.” Jockeys in Britain are required to use air-padded whips equipped with microchips to ensure that they don’t lose their cushioning, a measure that minimizes injury to the horse.
Animal welfare groups, on the other hand, see the whip as a potential threat to animal safety. Animal Aid, the country’s largest such organization, is calling for an outright ban, though the RSPCA and others tolerate regulated whip use.
More from GlobalPost: France gets sucked into debt crisis
Whip use rules vary across the globe. Norway banned the whip from racing entirely in 1982. The US has no national laws governing whips, though stewards can fine riders for excessive or improper use in individual races.
Critics say the new rules are a threat to the competitiveness of British racing.
“More often than not, the best horses out there are the ones that keep a little up their sleeve. They’re the ones that respond to the crack of the whip,” Darley said. Since the rules were in place, he believes there have been “one or two instances where the best horse hasn’t won the race.”
For now at least, the rules appear to have changed the way jockeys use their crop. The number of jockeys hitting their horses two or more times over the limit is down by 40 percent from this time last year, Mounsey said. Technical offenses such as hitting with excessive force or not giving the horse time to respond – rules that existed before the changes – are down by 50 percent.
The BHA has no plans to review the latest version of the rules, Mounsey said. However, both the jockeys’ union and the RSCPA say they will be watching this season to see if they can live with the current guidelines.
For one organization, that is not enough. Animal Aid says their campaign to ban the whip is part of a longer-term goal to turn public opinion against what they believe is a harmful sport.
“Hopefully, we show people what goes on [in racing] and then people can make an informed decision about whether to spend their money or participate in that industry,” Pereira said. “We hope they’d choose not to.”
More from GlobalPost: Why North Koreans weep over Kim Jong Il's death.