The Booting Phenomenon
Ray Cotolo
Last racing season saw the rise of a debate regarding "booting", the act of kicking the hock of a horse while in the back-phase of their stride. Famously done by one of the top drivers in the game, Tim Tetrick, it had caused an uproar of complaints within industry insiders, mainly because it is required by all racing commissions that drivers' feet remain in the stirrups over the duration of a race. The debate has been on whether or not the rule should be amended, basically to abolishment, or to keep it in place. The controversy arose once more this past weekend, when Sam McKee inquired Tetrick on booting (You can watch the interview by clicking here).
In the interview, Tetrick stated that in his theory, "It's not really kicking, it's more like nudging or urging. It's a lot better than taking your whip and slashing on the horse with the whip. It is a rule, the way it is written right now, and I think we need to change the rule. The last thing I'd ever want to do is abuse a horse; I try not to hit one very much, I'm trying to hand-drive them."
After hearing his interview, my curiosity heightened. How does kicking the hock actually affect the horse? Optically speaking, it looks like it can be harmful. I showed some non-racing experienced people the 2013 Tattersalls Pace, where social media initiated the debate (You can watch it here).
"It looks like it can cause an accident," one said.
"That looks like it's not good," the other said.
These were the answers I was expecting, anything relating to the optics of booting. This has been the main defense against booting, that those who aren't involved in the industry will draw an instant conclusion that the driver is cruelly urging the horse. This is undoubtedly true. People are inclined to believe what their eyes communicate, rather than contemplating and/or researching the occurrence. That being said, I managed to contact veterinarian Dr. Ernie Finocchio, who had worked with standardbreds at Plainridge Racecourse in Massachusetts.
Dr. Ernie Finocchio: During the race, their [the driver's] legs are stretched out, they're spread apart and they're in the stirrups. That stirrup is probably six to nine inches away from the hock when the foot is in that position [back-phase of the stride]. How much force can you exert with your leg extended straight-out, moving your leg medially six to nine inches to inflict any kind of trauma to a horse's hock?
Ray Cotolo: There doesn't seem like there's too much force put into it.
EF: Exactly. They [the animal activists] should be more concerned with the affects of the whip, rather than a boot moving medially six to nine inches, making contact with a moving object.
RC: Even in the long-term, horses won't develop joint problems or anything along those terms from being kicked in the hock?
EF: It would be, in my opinion, highly unlikely, unless the boot, shoe, whatever had some type of a metallic protection. It's just ridiculous. I think it's a ridiculous debate due to the fact that the probability of how many times you can strike that horse's hock, the minimal amount of force that would be exerted from moving your foot medially eight, nine, ten inches. The leg is not a stationary object. That leg, in that position, is probably not planted on the ground, so now you're moving your foot medially, hitting a moving object. That leg will not absorb all of the force if in motion. The chances of any type of trauma, cruelty would be absolutely negligible in my opinion.
RC: Do you understand how the horse reacts [to being kicked in the hock] because it's claimed to be a method of urging and the horse is spooked?
EF: Well, yeah. It is no different than a jockey riding a thoroughbred down the stretch and the horse has blinkers on, then all of a sudden he's struck in his hindquarters by a whip. That's a sudden, unexpected move to startle the animal. Does it make them move faster? I don't think there is scientific evidence to prove that the whipping of a horse makes them go faster, if it does, maybe for a stride or two, but then that's over with. That's why they have to strike them a number of times. These trotters, when you see them come down the stretch, they [the driver] go to the whip. In thoroughbred racing, you are limited to the number of times you can hit a horse. I'm not sure of how many times in pacing or trotting that you can whip a horse. I know that you cannot inflict trauma with the whip in the sulky or in the thoroughbreds. The jockey or the rider would get some-days suspension.
EF: With that boot coming across, the physics of it, I cannot see it causing any kind of trauma. I can't see it causing more of a startling effect than the crack of a whip.
RC: Do you think the kicking of the hock can cause any misstep at all?
EF: I don't think there's enough force exerted to deviate that leg inwardly to put that horse off stride, in my opinion.
RC: Not even make them come into the potential of an accident?
EF: To deviate its true course, in the back-phase of the stride, the amount of time it takes for a horse to complete a stride, I think, the horse would have righted himself. I do not think that could happen, from a physical point of view, I don't think a foot hitting a horse's leg, with the distance it has to go and the force applied could cause an accident. Horses are bumped in flat racing and they don't break down or fall down a majority of times. You're talking about a one thousand to twelve hundred pound animal bumping another horse of equal weight at 35 miles per hour. They throw them off stride a little bit, yeah, but rarely does it knock them down.
EF: You're talking about the shoe of a driver, weighing about 130 to 200 pounds, moving medially at five, ten mile an hour, striking a horse with a leg that is basically in the air causing any kind of cruelty, trauma or putting them off stride? I think people are absolutely stretching things very, very far.
With the physiological impact now accounted for, the logical aspect of amending the booting rule comes into play. Let's consider booting was a legal practice in standardbred racing and every driver was using it, what difference would it make? Hopefully you're thinking none, because that is the correct hypothesis. No matter how tight the margin between two competitors would be, the act of booting would create such a miniscule change that it would be immeasurable to the human eye. In simpler terms, if one guy is doing something to give him an edge, that soon everybody begins to do, that edge becomes equal.
A big peeve of mine with this whole debate has been that Tetrick is the only driver receiving criticism. Of course, I am to remind myself he is the main advocate to amend the kicking rule. But if you carefully watch both the 2013 Tattersalls and the 2013 William Haughton Memorial (watch with this link), you will see that Brian Sears (on Vegas Vacation) and David Miller (on Pet Rock) kick the hock of their horses to the finish, except they are using their left leg as if to hide it from the camera. Because their actions are hard to decipher with the given angless, Tetrick is likely the bait due to his religious-like use of his right leg, which is easily captured on the given angles.
In the end, my opinion on this whole matter is that it would change nothing in the sport. While this method of urging is safer to use than the whip, we won't see any change in the rules in the coming years. Even if we did, it won't affect how we play the races and how they win races. The only difference would be a gesture that is cruel optically, while is harmless physiologically. Due to it appearing cruel, it carries the possibility of driving away potential race fans, which thankfully is the number one offense towards amending the kicking rule.
Ray Cotolo, long time follower of the harness racing industry, is a presenter on North American Harness Update.
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