Jockey may have whipped Pharoah out of Preakness contention

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Victor Espinoza aboard American Pharoah celebrates winning the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)

Barbara Borden, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said 12 state-approved veterinarians examined American Pharoah following the colt's Kentucky Derby win, which is approximately one examination for every three times jockey Victor Espinoza whacked the misspelled champion as the two of them lugged down the Churchill Downs stretch toward the finish line.

The vets didn't find a mark on Pharoah, although he was struck 32 times by Espinoza's whip during a ride that appeared to tread dangerously along the dividing line between encouragement and abuse. It was close enough that Borden undertook an inquiry of the matter, concluded that Espinoza was guilty of nothing more than enthusiasm, and chose not to sully the result of the largest economic engine in the commonwealth that employs her.

"He did hit the horse quite a few times, but it was all within the rules of the state," Borden told the Lexington Herald Leader.

From a tactical standpoint, Espinoza did what he thought necessary to get American Pharoah home and that is his job. It has also been said by jockeys and trainers that the lighter, softer whips used now often act as more of a metronome than a bludgeon, tapping out the stride and keeping the horse aware of the job at hand.

Unfortunately, Pharoah is not able to corroborate this theory and define whether that final stretch run was accompanied by an excited urging or something more terrifying. He arrived at the finish line spent, even though the Derby was the second-slowest running over a fast track and the third-slowest last two furlongs since 2000. American Pharoah really didn't have it on Derby Day, but still won, and when Espinoza stood in the stirrups after the finish line and raised his whip high in the air there was a symbolic correlation on display.

"He was hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel," trainer Bob Baffert said later. "He doesn't really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy."

Espinoza kept Stellar Wind busy in the Santa Anita Oaks in April and was fined $300 last Friday by track stewards for bringing the filly back with a break in her skin as a result of the ride. He has been fined earlier in his career for improper use of the whip, although the most recent previous infraction that drew a penalty was in 2009.

The horse racing industry, which is not always the best at protecting its athletes, is at least cognizant of protecting its image. A new rule for the state of California takes effect July 1 in which a jockey must pause after every three strikes to give the horse a chance to respond.

"It's really all about perception," Darrell Haire, a regional manager of the Jockeys' Guild, which supported the new rule, told reporters. "It looks bad when a rider keeps after a horse."

It might not be all that good for the horse, either.

None of this means that Victor Espinoza is a bad guy or a bad jockey, or that American Pharoah was intentionally misused. It just means that a horse who is asked to expend as much as Pharoah was in what was essentially a slow, trouble-free trip is probably not destined to win three distance races in the space of five weeks. If Pharoah fails in either the Preakness on Saturday or in the Belmont Stakes on June 6, you can place the jockey's urgings during the Derby among the list of reasons.

Jockeys need whips, of course, and anyone who suggests otherwise doesn't understand the game. When trying to navigate a headstrong 1,000-pound animal traveling at 35 miles per hour around a track in close proximity to other 1,000-pound animals going just as fast, it is a good thing to be able to steer. And to administer the whip as a motivational tool, in conjunction with hands and heels, can be useful to focus the horse's attention.

The question is about how much is too much, and how to legislate away the potential for abuse. If there is a $2 million purse on the line, and some measure of immortality, that upside, in the heat of the moment, is probably going to offset the concern over an unlikely fine.

As we approach the Preakness this week, the possibility of a Triple Crown winner is still in play, as it is every year. But if you watched the Kentucky Derby closely, American Pharoah lost more than lather and weight as he pushed to finish ahead of Firing Line and Dortmund.

He lost the Triple Crown, too.

 


Crop Guidelines

The Association of Racing Commissioners International has developed guidelines regarding racing crop construction and use.

The crop is to be used only for safety, correction, and encouragement, and in a manner consistent with the jockey's best efforts to win. The jockey is to show the horse the crop and give it time to respond before striking the horse. After using the crop, the jockey is to give the horse time to respond before using it again. The crop is to be applied only to the horse's shoulder or hindquarters, not its face or flanks.

Use that is deemed to be brutal or excessive is prohibited. The crop is not to be used to strike another horse or jockey, and is not to be used on a horse persistently if the horse is clearly out of the race or has obtained its maximum placing.

Horses are subject to inspection after the race, and those that show cuts, welts, or bruised caused by the crop will be reported to the racing stewards.

Source: equinews.com


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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