OCEANPORT — With opening day on May 28 rapidly approaching, Monmouth Park faces a potential boycott by jockeys, while finding itself at the center of a national debate pitting public perception against horse racing traditions.
Some of the track’s leading riders have yet to commit to returning to the Jersey Shore for the 2021 season — citing the New Jersey Racing Commission’s decision to restrict the use of riding crops.
The new anti-whip rule — the strictest of its kind in the country — puts the state at the forefront of a movement seeking to minimize a practice critics view as animal cruelty.
But many of the Oceanport racetrack’s top jockeys from last summer feel the inability to use the whip “except for reasons of safety” puts themselves and the horses at risk, while fundamentally altering the nature of the sport.
“To put it in layman’s terms, it’s like no jockeys, no racing,” said 13-time Monmouth Park riding champion Joe Bravo, an Eatontown resident. “I really don’t understand what riders would be there.”
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed opening day by two months, racing’s shifting landscape will dramatically alter the 53-day meet on several levels.
When the new regulation was enacted last year, the Racing Commission said in a statement: “The prohibition of the use of riding crops, except when necessary for the safety of horse or rider, will be perceived in a positive light by the general public. The proposed repeal and new rules are of the utmost importance in adapting the industry to avoid the currently negative public perception of whipping a horse.”
The jockeys have gone to court seeking to eliminate the rule but a decision isn’t expected until later in the summer. The New Jersey appellate division April 18 denied a motion by the Jockeys’ Guild for a preliminary injunction.
Among the 14 jockeys who had 100 mounts or more during Monmouth Park’s core summer meet in 2020, only three committed to returning to the Jersey Shore to ride when contacted by the Asbury Park Press.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a boycott. It’s a decision,” said Terry Mayocks, the president and CEO of the Jockeys’ Guild, the trade association that represents riders in the United States. “We had a meeting when the stay was denied and just explained it to everyone and the process we’ve gone through the last year-and-a-half, and everyone basically said we don’t feel comfortable. And if they can stay in Florida or go to other racetracks, that’s an individual decision they will have to make.”
The Racing Commission declined a request for comment, citing pending litigation. The commission has its next meeting May 19.
“It’s an issue for some of the public,” said Dennis Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park. “Even people I know that are fans out there, and come for the enjoyment of it say I think there has to be less whips. I’m not sure what the number is.
“I support the jockeys. I am not looking for them to put their lives at risk if they feel like it’s putting themselves in jeopardy. But I think in those situations they are going to be able to use the whip.”
A whip rule instituted last year in California allows a maximum of six strikes with hands off the reins, no more than twice in succession, with the crop used in an underhanded position at or below the jockey’s shoulder level. There’s no limit on the number of times a rider can strike a horse on the shoulder with both hands on the reins.
Kentucky adopted new whip restrictions Monday, which allow for six overhanded strikes in a race, with riders required to give the horse a chance to respond after two. Underhanded or backhanded use is permitted only in the final 3/8-mile, and do not count towards the six-strike limit.
“I’m more concerned with the jockey’s safety and having a jockey overreact to the rule and not do what he is supposed to do to make sure he’s safe, because their lives are at stake and they come first,” Drazin said. “So I think we have asked, and I am told it is going to happen, that there be meetings between the stewards and the jockeys and literature printed to explain the new rule what you can and can’t do. I would think in the first few months will be a work in progress, with a lot of discussions about what is OK and not OK.”
Not all jockeys are staying away. Ferrin Peterson, whose 50 wins was second behind Paco Lopez during the 44-day meet in 2020, plans to make her way from Maryland in time for opening day.
“It hasn’t been a factor for me. I wanted to come back to Monmouth because I have a lot of connections and my business there, and I really enjoyed the meet so it feels like coming back home,” Peterson said.
It’s unclear if the whip rule will hurt the quality of the field for the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Stakes, with the centerpiece of the meet to be run on July 17.
“I think it’s unlikely it would impact trainers sending horses to a race like the Haskell,” Drazin said. “But an ordinary stake, where they have four or five stakes in different states, if they have a horse they feel like needs more urging they might choose the other venue over us. I don’t want to say that’s not a possibility.”
Drazin does have concerns about the potential impact on the bottom line. Monmouth Park’s already had its state purse subsidy trimmed from $10 million to $7.5 million.
“I had one big bettor call and say, ‘if there’s a turf race at Monmouth Park with a bunch of closers, how can I bet with any confidence knowing that the jocks can’t encourage the horse in the final eighth of a mile?’“ Drazin said. “He said, ‘It’s going to affect how much money I’m going to be willing to bet into your pools.’”
“I won the Haskell with Wise Times, and if I don’t have a whip I don’t win that race,” said recently retired jockey Chris DeCarlo of his last-to-first victory in 1986. “That’s why they’re closers, because they’re not as motivated. What you’re going to have are merry-go-round races at Monmouth Park.”
More than two years after a spike in horse deaths at Santa Anita sparked a national conversation on every aspect of equine safety, including medication reform, the focus is now squarely on Monmouth Park, as long-held traditions clash with new concepts at the Jersey Shore institution.
Stephen Edelson is a USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey sports columnist who has been covering athletics in the state and at the Jersey Shore for nearly 35 years. Contact him at: @SteveEdelsonAPP; email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Anti-whip rule has Monmouth Park jockeys mulling boycott