August 25, 2001


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Maneka Gandhi

The sadism behind horse racing

In 1999 the animal welfare wing of the ministry for social justice and empowerment decided to frame rules for those areas of animal use that had been left uncovered by any laws. This involved the transport of animals for the purpose of slaughter by truck, train and plane, slaughterhouses, performance industries like films, advertising, circuses and races.

When we started asking for people in the field to send their views, we received many complaints about the horse racing industry. An industry by the rich, for the rich, which over the years had become less of a sport -- even though it had been classified as such by the Supreme Court -- and more of a business that incidentally used horses but whose main purpose was making money through racing.

The comprehensive picture which emerged was truly startling. This ranged form undervaluation of horses when they were bought from abroad and a complicated fixing of prices at foreign auctions which involved the mysterious sale and resale of auction horses so that the price fell (!) with each sale -- even if it happened in one week -- so that the horse's price was Rs 10 lakh or under when it was finally brought to India.

On questioning, customs officials explained the whole underhand procedure and revealed the names of the main buyers and how they avoided FERA and customs duties. In the internal sale, the same horses were sold in white at a nominal price while the actual price was more than 10 times that. A comprehensive look at the saleprices had a mysterious sameness. And again the same group of people were involved. The next financial racket involved the mysterious fires at stables which just happened to kill horses that were not winning regularly and which had been overvalued by the owners for insurance. This again spread out over many cities. This is major insurance fraud.

Then, of course, there is betting. A poor man buys a lottery ticket and the government takes a cut for tax. The poor man cannot avoid the tax or fudge it, as it is clearly marked on the ticket. But a rich man who buys the lottery ticket in the form of a racing bet does otherwise. When a bet is made for Rs 100 it usually means Rs 10,000 and so on. The government gets the tax on Rs 100 -- the rest is in black.

These were some of the scams that were gradually uncovered over the year. The smaller misuses like taking land for racing and then renting it out for marriages and restaurants were also collected. The misuse of illegal drugs was another point. The evidence was collected and handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The need for a commission of inquiry with a judge has also been stressed. Let us see how long it takes.

I then turned my attention to the areas that formally came under me. Hundreds of films on races were watched by a group of people, newspapers with report of fines and misuse of horses were collected. Jockeys were interviewed. Whips were collected and examined. International laws were collected and collated. A meeting with the various players, the turf club stewards and owners was held in early 2000 in Bangalore. They were good enough to meet me. I had a simple request: change the current whip to a gentler one. I did not tell them about the other findings. All of them said they would call a meeting of the other turf clubs and then come to see me in a month. They came to Delhi and agreed they could switch the whip. They said they had consulted their jockeys, trainers, owners etc and agreed to switch to air-cushion whips which were being used in England and would place orders for their import.

The matter finished there. Within a few weeks Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore had switched over. As far as I was concerned the matter finished there.

Unfortunately a group of people holding sway over the Mumbai/Pune turf clubs decided they were not going to use the whip. A person was appointed to fly to each turf club in India and dissuade them from using the whip. The person met with rebuff after rebuff from jockeys and club heads who were quite happy with the whip. So they did the next best thing: The jockeys association went to court to get a stay on the use of the whip: in effect -- asking for permission to continue to be vicious.

It was then that the ministry decided not to just regulate the whip alone but to broaden the area into all aspects of cruelty -- and there are many. The rules were gazetted on March 26 and now covered the gamut of a large number of illegalities that the horse racing community had been getting away with for the last 50 years.

The turf authorities sent a letter in April, predictably protesting against each one of the orders -- including the one that classified the horse as an animal! The jockeys association sent another letter protesting in great detail about their love for horses and yet repeating in practically each line the necessity for whipping them.

Since I believe an industry should be given a fair hearing and since I knew many people in this industry are good people, we called all the players in the game to a meeting. This included associations of jockeys, stewards, owners, trainers, veterinary doctors, the chairmen and secretary generals of each turf club, retired heads of the jockey association, managing committee members, the director of the racing academy, even racing journalists. We even asked for the RSPCA person in charge of racehorses in England to come down, which Dr McDowell did. We showed films in which horses were being illegally beaten, to the point that they became unbalanced, and races that were lost because of excessive beating -- and races that had been won without whipping etc.

Then we went straight to each issue. Everything was resolved with good humour and patience -- even by the jockeys who, again predictably, had brought a lawyer who confined himself to saying that no matter what we decided at the meeting, he reserved the right to litigate (what would we do without lawyers!).

Here are the things we found and what is going to be done about them. Let's start with the whip.

There is no doubt that the whips being used are very cruel. They used to have whalebone in the middle until 1970 when they were outlawed because the whale had become an endangered species. They now have fibreglass with air round it and leather outside. According to their own rules, the jockey cannot over-whip the horse (but over-whipping is a subjective thing, to be decided after the race), the jockey cannot raise his hands above shoulder height. They do it all the time. They can only whip on certain parts of the body. Jockeys have been known to whip horses across the face and between the ears.

Why does a jockey whip a horse? According to the many who were interviewed, it is because the fine for over-whipping is much less than that for under-whipping! The belief is that the jockey did not try hard enough to win the race. The second belief is the public (these mysterious creatures caught in a bygone era where everything British has to be copied including the strange clothes worn to the races and the affected accents and exaggerated behaviour) like the horse being whipped, and since the horse was in a performance the public's appetite should be satiated. Of course these are some of the minor reasons.

The main reason is that the jockeys are not properly trained. Foreign racing clubs have simulators on which a jockey is trained to control a horse. None of the turf clubs have them here. No whip-happy jockey is ever controlled. Owners often tell their jockeys not to hit their horses. They do anyway because a jockey gets Rs 750 a race and much more if he comes in the first three -- 7.5 per cent of the stake money which, in the Bombay Derby can go up to Rs 35,000 or more.

Wallie Swinburne, one of the most respected jockeys, says most jockeys do not know how to use the whip. Aslam Kadar, India's no 2 jockey, has in an interview said: 'Most of our Indian riders are stereotyped and too whip-happy to get the best results out of a horse.'

In fact most jockeys get names related to their use of the whip and the worse the name ('Whipmaster,' for instance) the more masculine they feel. According to jockeys, "the use of the whip is a vital medium of communication between the rider and the horse." A pretty onesided communication -- like the beating of a child ("this hurts me more than it does you, son"). Contrary to the assertion that a whip encourages a horse and prevents veering, we looked at hundreds of films where the horse was frightened by the whip (what else would a whip do?) and very often causes veering.

In England, (if we are to follow the rules of that country) a jockey is trained thoroughly and the whip is used not more than five times without raising the hand above the shoulders. Anything else and the jockey is suspended for 15 days. Here he is fined a mere Rs 1,000 which is usually paid by the owner. Again, the jockey's position is that no horse has ever died of excessive whipping. Should we wait till one dies? Certainly bleeding horses are common. The fact that the winners are checked immediately after a race for whipping shows that this is more the norm than the exception. Who has forgotten the sight in Mysore three years ago when a jockey frustrated at losing a race slashed his horse across the face in full view of the spectators. Many people have seen horses bleeding from whip marks. Let me give you just one day's observations by a senior turf club vet:

  • April 28, 2001. The Let Me Fly Plate: Jockey Sunny Chinoy fined Rs 2,000 for improper use of his whip on Whirling Dervish; the senior veterinary officer recommended that the horse be stopped from racing for four weeks.
  • The Desert Sunrise Plate: Bearer Bond was observed to be bleeding and the senior veterinary officer recommended the horse be stopped from racing for four weeks.
  • The Sonehro Plate: Boundless Thrill was observed to have bled and the senior veterinary officer recommended the horse be stopped from racing for four weeks.
  • March 31, 2001 The Meherjee Dhunjishaw Plate: Prabhuti bled after the race and the senior veterinary officer recommended the horse be stopped from racing for eight weeks as it was the second time the filly had bled.
  • Here is a report by the Stipendiary Steward for the J D and Peggy Banatwalla Trophy: 'It was observed that at about 250 metres when jockey B Prakash used the whip on Royal Amaretto the second time the horse shifted inside towards the rails.... got completely unbalanced and therefore he had to stop riding. Jockey Prakash when questioned stated that he was riding out hands and heels but when Nautilus came alongside to challenge, he pulled out his stick and just gave him two cracks and he shifted in and did not give him time to pull out.'

So much for the no overuse and humane 'communication.' In fact there was a letter from the Jockey Club of England, in 1993 admitting that thermographs showed that this whip caused subcutaneous bleeding. I have copies of x-rays in which the blood clots below the surface are clear. One of the ways the jockeys and the clubs try to avoid informing the public of this insane cruelty is by checking only the winning horses and that too immediately after the race. But the weals come up only six hours later! And what about the other horses who have been beaten as well?

One of the things we have agreed on is that all the horses will be checked, not just after the race but six hours later. Now, again very strangely, the jockeys insist that one of their representatives should be present when the turf club vet checks the horses! During the meeting they argued strenuously for 'no limit whipping' and finally have brought their demands to 12 (why this magic figure, no one could understand?)

Most importantly, apprentice jockeys have to win 10 races before they are allowed to use a whip. To win these 10 games they obviously have to ride about a hundred. So an apprentice cannot use a whip when he wins a race but an experienced jockey cannot communicate with his horse without it? And apprentices ride the same horses that the experienced jockey do -- there are no horses kept specially for them.

Another peculiar thing is that, in England, only the licensed jockey can whip a horse. In India everyone can -- the syce, trainer, apprentices, stablehands... you name it.

Anyway the long and short of the matter is that this whip will not be used any more. Jockeys will use an air-cushion whip which is softer. Apart from that they will not be allowed be to whip more than eight times (in England, as I have said before, it is 5. In Germany it is 7). This is a practice already followed with great success by the Hyderabad Turf Club. They will be given simulators in each club so that they can, finally, learn properly how to ride a horse. The horse can only be whipped by a licensed jockey and the whip shall not be used other than on the quarters in either the forehand or the backhand position or down the shoulder in the backhand position. No whipping shall be allowed by raising the arms above shoulder height. The fines are:

First offence: Rs 1,000
Second offence: Rs 3,000
Third offence: Suspension for two race days
Fourth offence: Withdrawal of the whip for the season. If the offence is in the last week, the withdrawal will be carried over to the next season.

From now onwards, government inspectors will monitor races to see whether these rules are being followed. The new whips are in India now, having been sent by the RSPCA and they will be used to see which of them is better -- but the choice is only between these two. At the meeting the jockeys claimed the air-cushion whip that I had recommended before had split while in use. Strange that this has not happened with jockeys anywhere else in the world. In fact, jockeys in both Ireland and England, have been extremely positive about this whip and have switched fully to it.

According to experts, under normal use "splitting does not occur, because of the type of rubber used. I think in your case it may have been tampered with." No comment.

This is what one of Britain's top jockeys, Mick Fitzgerald, had to say about the air-cushion whips: "Anything that promotes the sport in a more caring light must be good. We are not barbaric nor are we butchers. We want to get the best out of our horses without injuring them. I'm sure nobody will stand in the way of this." The secretary of the Jockey Club of South Africa Mindy Mogudi says: "We have recently received air-cushion whips which we believe are superior and less likely to injure a horse than any other whips being used." The British Jockey Club has changed its whip rules for the new whips. The Philippine Racing Commission has also done so.

Everyone at the meeting agreed with these conditions. In fact the owners association people were positively delighted. Everyone bar the jockeys who, even though they now have the opportunity to be professionally trained, obviously hate the thought of not whipping something. For those that are exceptionally badly hit, the ministry will provide cotton wool pillows.

So much for the whips. Now come to the other points and I will race through them:

1. It has been discovered that trainers are themselves not trained properly. This shows up not only in the care of horses but one of the things you can see it in is the mouth of the horse which becomes hard -- abused and mistreated during lunging. In some clubs there is a three year training period; at others a one year period. In some an oral test, in some a written test. Some trainers do not even know the parts of a horse. One trainer put the saddle on back to front. Now there will be a standard period and a standard written/oral test so that trainers are of the same quality. Elementary veterinary knowledge will be part of the course.

2. Horses are constantly shifted, depending on where the races are taking place. They are taken by the turf authorities in float cages. Some die, some get pneumonia and then die. The maximum number of deaths take place in the journey between Bangalore and Calcutta. No one has even looked into this until we studied it. The transport rules regarding horse travel now specify that the float cages will have ventilation (can you believe a box not being ventilated?) and that the horse will be tied in a way that he can move his head up and down. The reason for this is that the hay on which the horse stands gets wet and spores enter the horse's lungs.

Since he is tied, his neck is raised all the time and he cannot move it, so the spores enter the lungs and the horse gets lung congestion. Simple -- but we, not the horse owners, looked at this. If the horse snorts he can get the spores out and he can only do that if he is allowed movement. Also, no one can take the horse in a box for more than eight hours -- which is again the legal limit in England. After that, they have to exercise them.

3. The stables, everybody admitted, were far too small. Considering that horses live in them at the turf clubs year in and year out -- since owners don't keep them with themselves but leave them in the club with a trainer (so much for "luhve" for horses), they need bigger space. The new stables will now be 12 ft by 12ft. And the horse, which is a sociable and herd animal in nature, will be able to see other horses.

4. Steroids is another sore point. In India they are illegally used and many times given by trainers. When the joints of a horse are inflamed it needs rest. But for the owner and trainer, time is money -- the horse be damned. So they use steroids which are powerfully anti-inflammatory and work immediately so they save time and the horse can run again. They also use steroids to build up muscle -- which can happen in just six weeks so the horse can withstand more work and tougher training. Then they stop the steroids six weeks prior to a race. However, many carry on till the race -- and dope tests have found dozens of offenders. What does the steroid do to the horse? Joint lesions where the cartilage degenerates, arthritis, weakened bones, spontaneous compression fractures, fragmentary chipping, adrenal insufficiency and susceptibility to all infections.

Everyone associated with the sport knows that a sore horse gets a round of phenylbutazoladin known in racing terms as 'bute' and a bleeder gets a shot of Lasix. (It is a different matter that all scientific studies show that Lasix does not stop hemorrhages. The lungs will continue to bleed). All it does do is act as a diuretic and when given a normal dose, the horse will lose up to 2 per cent of its weight. Lasix destroys the kidneys in time. Horses that need to be "picked up" get steroids added to their feed. Horses going for sale get growth hormones.

In Australia a first time bleeder, bleeding from both nostrils will be banned from racing for three months. The second time it will be banned for life. Earlier on in this article, I have shown you how common this is and how inadequate the recommendations of the vets. How many times has a race-goer seen an injured horse putting weight on an already hurt ankle crash to the ground, breaking its leg and having to be shot? There are hundreds of fatal racing breakdowns every year. The abuse of steroids and painkillers is common in India -- turning a vibrant creature into a candidate for the butchers much faster. Now steroids and 'bute' will only be given by licensed vets and the log book of treatment administered to a horse will be open for inspection. Horses will be sampled at random by government inspectors to see that they are free from steroids.

5. The last thing we looked at was the way horses are treated in the turf clubs when an owner stops paying his dues. As you know, all horses are kept permanently at the turf clubs. A trainer is paid by an owner to look after his string. When the owner gets fed up with owning horses or decides that they are not worth the expense, he simply abandons them and stops paying the trainer for their feed. The trainer then starves the horses to death -- in full view of the turf authorities who watch the horse dwindle while gasping for food and water till it can no longer even stand.

Horses take three weeks to die -- but the club will not pay. Once the horses all die, the trainer gets a job with some other owner. This is the trainer who is supposed to have a 'special' relationship with horses. There is a fund for retired syces, retired jockeys, retired trainers. There is no fund established by the turf club for horses? Does this make sense when the entire sport revolves round the horse.

But now the law is that:
a. If an owner goes on ban, the horses will be taken over by the club and they will be fed and looked after till they can be auctioned or given away to a responsible party.
b. 1 per cent or more of stake money will be kept for an old/abandoned horses fund.
c. Any trainer who has behaved like this will have his licence permanently cancelled.

Horse racing is certainly not a sport. It is the ultimate betting game. There is no relationship between the owner, horse and jockey. Horses are now merely a disposable commodity that can be shot, burnt or sold to a serum institute as one race owner does regularly, to be injected with viruses and bled till it dies of pain.

Maneka Gandhi is the Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment.

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