Harness racing drivers in Ohio face stiffer penalties and more restrictions on the use of whips under a new rule that passed through the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review on Monday, June 23.
After fielding opposition and proponent testimony, JCARR members declined not to take action to delay or sidetrack the rule, clearing the way for its implementation by the Ohio State Racing Commission.
The rule outlines on which areas of the horse's body a whip may be used, specifies the types of whips to be used and clarifies what amount of force a driver can use. Drivers that violate that rule can face penalties including fines up to $10,000, disqualification or loss of placement.
The new rule specifically forbids ‘excessive, indiscriminate, visibly injurious or abusive use of the whip’ and states, in part, that drivers must:
Keep a line in each hand from the time the rider is behind the starting gate to the end of the race;
Whip only with elbow or wrist action and not raise the whipping arm above the driver's shoulder height;
Not move whipping arm in an exaggerated manner and shall ensure the line remains reasonably taut during the race;
Not use the handle of a whip on a horse;
Not use the whip on a horse that is tired, not visibly responding or on a horse not in contention in a race.
Although the JCARR staff determined the rule could have an adverse impact on businesses – because of the potential of fines and other penalties – the impact was found to be justified.
"Internal agency experts determined that the new rule may cause significant loss to the licensees who become disqualified or lose their placement," according to the rule's fiscal analysis. "This cost can be several thousand dollars depending on the potential purse money lost."
Renee Mancino, executive director of the Ohio Harness Horseman's Association, said in opposing the rule that in addition to drivers, the rule will hurt owners – who she said rarely hire the drivers – who find themselves losing out on winnings if their horse is disqualified or loses a place. She also argued the move will adversely impact horse players who bet on a winning horse only to see that horse disqualified due to the new rule.
"The adverse impact can happen even if a driver chooses to avoid a rule violation," Mancino said, questioning whether judges will apply the rule fairly in different situations. "It's not that it's just something you can look at like 'If they just choose to follow the rules they'll be OK.'"
Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) asked Mancino how the proposal compares to similar rules in other states.
"It's in line with what other states have passed for the most part," Mancino said. "It doesn't provide as much detail as other states do. Those states provide penalty charts. We don't even have a reliable penalty chart so it's kind of hit or miss what a driver will be penalized for."
Advocates, on the other hand, argued the rule is adequately specific and clarifies existing rules.
Robert Schmitz, chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, told committee members the rule is to prevent horses from being cut with whips. It's an occurrence he said that "happens quite a bit."
"The primary purpose of that rule is for the humanity of the animal," he said. "That is the direction a number of jurisdictions are going on, headed toward in this country."
Responding to a question from JCARR Chair Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), Schmitz said the commission could consider a penalty chart but that it has gotten along fine without one thus far.
Several committee members questioned how fines are doled out under the current rules. Schmitz said three judges – including a head judge and two associates – can assess a fine by a majority vote. The driver then has the option to appeal with the commission, which has the ability to increase the fine.
If that appeal fails, Schmitz said, the driver can appeal through the court system.
"I'm not against using a whip," Schmitz said. "I think you have to have a whip to control a horse. There's no doubt about that."
But when it comes to whips cutting horses, he said, "It happens more frequently than you'd imagine."