SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Days after two horses died just prior to the running of the Preakness Stakes thoroughbred race and despite critics expressing concerns about animal abuse, the California Horse Racing Board approved an increase in the number of times a jockey can whip a horse during the homestretch of a race.
Since July 1, 2015, jockeys in California had been limited to using their riding crop, or whip, three times in succession during the last 16th of a mile in a thoroughbred race, but an amendment approved Thursday by the board increases the limit to four whippings during the homestretch of the race before allowing the horse to respond.
Saturday, two horses died on Preakness Day during the first four events at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland.
Homeboykris, a nine-year-old gelding, collapsed after winning a race while Pramedya, a four-year-old filly, collapsed during a race with a broken leg and was then euthanized on the track.
Despite these recent deaths, California thoroughbred jockeys will now be allowed to use their whips with greater frequency, despite concerns that it is animal abuse to whip an animal that is showing signs of fatigue.
State chief steward Darrel McHargue, a retired American Champion jockey, spoke out against the increase in the number of strikes Thursday before the board, saying there have been benefits from the three-strike restriction in comparison to "indiscriminate" hitting of a horse.
McHargue said California is joining the international community, Europe and Australia in limiting strikes against horses and that "I know the horses like it."
However, Alexis Solis, the only active jockey to sit on the board, expressed his support for the four-strike limit, recounting a recent race in which his horse was tired and he hit her for a fourth time, despite the three-limit rule, and got her to win.
He said he had to pay a $200 fine, but that it was worth it because he won the grand prize.
Solis spoke before the board on the issue, saying that in that last 16th of a mile horses become tired.
"I have to be very honest I've been in trouble a month ago because at 16th of a mile my horse got very tired...I hit her three times and I hit her one more time right at the wire and she just won by a nose. And I know if I wouldn't have done that, it would have cost me the winner," Solis said.
Commissioner Steve Beneto, in response to the story told Solis, "That's what upsets me is, the horse it tired, he's giving out and we're sitting there encouraging them a whip. I think that's cruel...better to lose the race than have someone abuse the horse."
In response Solis said, "Yeah, but I don't know if the bettors going to feel that way. So. I mean, we're there to do a job."
Solis won the $100,000 stakes at Santa Anita Park on May 7th and his fourth whipping in the last stretch resulted in only a $200 fine.
In a 4-3 decision, Solis cast the deciding vote in favor of an increase to the number of whips in the final stretch of a race.
It turns out many other jockeys also decided to crack their whips more that three times in California races, resulting in similarly mild fines, meanwhile knowing that if they won the race they could easily afford to pay the fine.
Since the beginning of May 2016, 14 jockeys violated the three-strikes rule, according to the California Horse Racing Board and the Association of Race Commissioners International.
With such minimal penalties, the board shouldn't be surprised to find that jockeys chose to break the rules.
According to the California Horse Racing Board's 2015 annual report, 187 horses died last year at the facilities they oversee. Of those deaths, an estimated 77 were directly related to racing or training, while the remainder of deaths varied from gastro-intestinal diseases to neurological diseases.
According to the University of California, Davis - School of Veterinary Medicine, the most recent postmortem examination report, from two years ago, showed that of the 199 horses that died at race track facilities in California, 74 percent were racing or training at the time of their death or an injury that led to their death.
Following the death of the horses at Preakness Stakes on Saturday, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement that "Although death on the racetrack is nothing new—an estimated three Thoroughbreds die every day in North America because of catastrophic injuries during races—it's still shocking when animals are pushed beyond their physical breaking points for the sake of human entertainment."
PETA is urging the public to support the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2015 in order to "increase the oversight of drug use in horse racing and raise penalties for drug overuse." The animal rights group is also actively discouraging the public from attending or placing bets on any horse races. They've also demanded that the deceased horses' medical files be released.
California's proposed four-strike rule now goes to a 45-day public comment period.
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