Change whips up fear and doubt

Michael Guerin Columnist

By , Michael Guerin is a Roar Expert New author!

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    Harness racing is missing a golden opportunity to establish itself. (Wiki Commons: MagicFlute1983)

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    If one thing scares people more than change, it is doubt.

    Combine the pair together for an industry as habitual as horse racing and emotions will run high.

    This is exactly what happened when Harness Racing Australia, the ruling body of the horse racing code many people know as the trots, announced they will outlaw whips from September 1 next year.

    The news, coming hours after the industry’s flagship race the Inter Dominion in Perth, sent shockwaves through the small but uber passionate harness racing fraternity.

    The theory behind banning the use of whips in racing is understandable.

    The public tolerance for seeing people hit horses has clearly waned and by banning the whip HRA is hoping to portray the code as kinder, and more progressive, than its wildly more popular side code, thoroughbred racing.

    Both codes have already placed far greater restrictions on whip use than there were decades ago and rightly so because it wasn’t that long ago horses were being flogged in Australia.

    Curtailing whip use, even to the extent of banning it, would seem a natural progression, especially as it is already banned in some Scandinavian countries.

    But the people in the hot seat, literally, are the horse drivers who fear now being asked to steer 500kgs of horseflesh at full speed without a whip to keep them in line should it decide to go walkabout.

    The drivers say without a whip they, and therefore the horses, are in danger. HRA says they will work with them to develop a ‘guiding tool’, for use when their safety it at risk.

    And that is where the change meets the doubt.

    Nobody has seen a harness racing ‘guiding tool’ because they don’t exist. Will it help control a horse at speed? When will it be allowed to be used? What exactly will it be?

    All fair questions and this is where the relatively small industry that is harness racing has to stand united, not divided.

    It isn’t big enough to have administrators and participants arguing over a key safety issue which also doubles as a public perception thorn.

    The announcement of a whip ‘ban’ was met with talk of strikes and states making their own rules, going it alone. That would be a mess because when people are punting their hard earned money they crave consistency, not different rules for different tracks.

    So HRA needs to educate, inform and listen to its participants.

    They have made their decision and, right or wrong, it looks set to be the new reality come September.

    So rather than the two sides of the industry treating each other like enemies they need to sit down and work on first developing an appropriate apparatus to be used as a ‘guider’ and then agree on when it should be allowed to be used.

    No bubbling anger, no outrageous claims and a little less emotion – a series of discussions between parties ultimately hoping to address public perception without compromising safety.

    Start now, develop, test, trial and make sure by September 1 harness racing is ready for its brave new dawn.

    Prove to the public this is an industry that cares about its people as much as its horses.

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