The extremes won’t win the whipping debate

Common sense will prevail.

by Dean Towers

I don’t know when it happened – was it the advent of social media, 24/7 news, or something completely unrelated — but it happened. Whenever you, I, or anyone else has an opinion on something, it’s not an opinion to be debated, it’s a label.

“I hope they take a look at the regulation of smaller banks because small businesses are having a tough time getting capital, and the big banks keep getting bigger,” said Joe.

“You must be one of those anti-regulation Trumpers. What’s next, not regulating our drinking water?” replies Bob.

“I hope the public option for health care is explored a little more, because things aren’t really working,” said Julie.

“Dumb Democrats, always wanting to take my freedom,” replies Sue.

I swear, every opinion is an extreme one. Not because the opinion itself ever was, or is, extreme; because that’s what people want it to be.

I was at the World Trotting Conference last week in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. On the last day I had to leave early, but I wanted to make time for the last session of the week. It was a panel on whipping, where John Campbell and others would be discussing the issue. As expected, the panel was deferential, had some strong opinions, and was very interesting. There was a lot of common ground as well, and I learned something.

I learned things like:

Ontario regulator Brent Stone said that after strict whip rules were implemented in Ontario, the narrative that horses would go slower didn’t come to fruition. He told the crowd that many horses took lifetime marks in the weeks following the changes.

Stone also noted that “kicking” started to be more prevalent with drivers looking for an edge. The judges had to be on alert to watch closely for infractions.

I learned that Norway has a zero tolerance policy regarding whip use. Although things have run fairly smoothly in the Nordic country, John Campbell told the crowd that with pacers, “whip free” racing would not fly. It was news to me – although likely not to many of you who work with these animals all day – that when pacers break it can be much more violent compared to a trotter. Campbell said that for safety reasons a whip is vital for pacers and it’s a non-starter.

Australia’s Geoff Want told the assembled gathering that Down Under, racing’s brain trust are making decisions through what he called a “social license”, because racing – especially harness racing – is being looked at through that lens by politicians.

After watching the discussion – including some comments from Melissa Keith, representing the customer on the panel – I came away with a very good feeling. There was agreement that with urbanization and the treatment of animals a part of who we are in the western world, things are changing. Because of this change, the theme that harness racing has no choice in the matter and must work towards less whip use prevailed. And with the public’s (and their political representatives) hands increasingly on the purse strings, everyone was in agreement that the issue has to be addressed.

When I returned to the real world and saw people talking about the panel, I didn’t see as much agreement. In fact, in many quarters, I saw what I see almost daily on political social media. It was the extremes doing what they do. Those who want to take most of the whipping out of the sport were labelled as some sort of PETA plants; those who wanted to curtail whipping, but still wanted it to be a big part of the sport for various reasons, were out of touch and backwards.

Oh, how quickly these things devolve.

Sometimes I let such things influence me, and it makes me feel like we have no hope to ever change anything in harness racing. But in this case, I discount much of the vitriol from the extremes. When I sit and watch honest insiders such as Geoff Want and John Campbell alongside regulators like Brent Stone in almost lock step agreement, it gives me great confidence. These are good people, with a whole lot of common sense.

In the end, I firmly believe that within three or four years, the “whipping debate” won’t be a debate at all. The writing is on the wall and it is clear something must be done across all jurisdictions in a blanket way. Honest people all seem to agree on that. And when honest people work together, the fringes are drowned out, and common sense tends to prevail.