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. (Watch here) 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.
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 BloodHorse.com, "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.