Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson aboard Tom Fool. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Commentary: Amid Crop Debate, Atkinson’s Influence All the More Legendary

By Caton Bredar

Analyst Caton Bredar is the granddaughter of Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson.

The recent decision by the New Jersey State Racing Commission to limit jockeys to using the whip strictly for safety purposes is only the latest in a vast patchwork quilt of rules and regulations across the country where every state, it seems, has a different take on how the public perceives whipping and what the correct and/or necessary way to use the crop really is.  

The decision has also put Monmouth Park’s Opening Weekend smack in the center of a debate that’s been burning for quite some time – one in which everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And while I’ve never been a jockey, as the wife of a jockey agent and granddaughter of a Hall of Fame jockey, I not only have opinions, I have some unique historical perspective – context and perspective being something apparently not considered when the current rules were put into place.

Not every granddaughter is proud to say her grandfather was known as “the Slasher,” but I am.  Although not as politically correct today as it was in the 1940’s, Grandpa Ted Atkinson – the first active rider to be enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame in 1957 – earned the nickname not because he was overly aggressive or struck particularly hard, but because of a high-winding, straight-armed style of whipping that was very distinctive. A slashing motion. As he explained to me many years ago, the trainer he first rode for, Horace Rumage, didn’t want his horses struck near the flanks but rather up high, on the rump.  By dropping a shoulder and using a straight-armed, slashing motion, he was able to hit the target higher up on the rump on a less vulnerable part of the horse’s hide. He developed a style that was less likely to harm his mounts.

My grandfather also believed that the goal was to make contact with the horse before he was at the top of his stride.  As he writes in his book All the Way (in a chapter entitled “To Whip or Not to Whip” appropriately enough): “I have never been able to see the sense of whipping a horse while he is in the air…there’s no way a blow of any kind at that point could make him reach any further or any faster.”  His slashing, straight-armed style enabled him to develop a rhythm that, in effect, served as an encouragement to the horse to reach farther rather than as a punishment. 

The first rider to win a million dollars, Grandpa Ted co-wrote All the Way in 1961, just two years after he retired from race riding with 3,795 wins. The book was a biographical account of his life and career as well as a layman’s guide to racing, a way to bridge the knowledge gap between insiders and newcomers. The chapter on crops delves into the nuances of race riding, the intricate relationship a jockey has with a horse, as well as the unique tendencies individual horses have toward the whip. It is both simplistic and technical, illustrating the dichotomy that existed for riders then and persists more than 60 years later today. 

“There aren’t too many horses that give the supreme effort without being urged in some fashion,” he wrote. “Horses vary in regard to how much whipping they need or will tolerate. There are horses that must be driven to some extent from flag fall to finish…”

“One Hitter resented the whip if applied anywhere but his shoulder. Admiral Vee, too, did not mind being rapped on the shoulder but a rap on the rump made him sulk.”

Of multiple champion and 1953 Horse of the Year Tom Fool, who my grandfather rode for all of his 30 lifetime starts, he wrote:

“Tom Fool was a good whip horse but I never punished him…he nosed out Royal Vale in the 1953 Suburban at the finish in a hard drive.  When Jim Roach, now sports editor of the New York Times asked me about the whipping I had done in that race, I replied the idea was not to punish Tom Fool but to impress him with the urgency of the situation.”

And finally, this: 

“The artistry in race riding comes in the ability to pace a horse, not in the ability to whip him to victory, I think the whip is overrated by too many jockeys as a means of acceleration and as a means of navigation.” 

An officer and active member of the Jockeys’ Guild from the start and before it was even known as the Jockeys’ Guild, my grandfather won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Greentree Stable’s Capot after finishing second in the 1949 Kentucky Derby.  That year, Capot had a commanding lead turning for home in the Derby, only to be passed by Ponder in the last 100 yards. Ponder won by three lengths, and my grandfather – “the Slasher” – only hit Capot twice in the stretch. When asked why he didn’t use the whip more, he told me, the horse had given all he had to give.  

Never a big fan of the nickname “the Slasher” (he preferred “the Professor” given to him for his habit of reading books between races), my grandfather was one of the first jockeys to go through the Jockey Club’s officials’ school.  He ended up as Senior State Steward for the Illinois Racing Board and earned a reputation for being very tough and very much by the book. He was sympathetic to riders but also expected much of them.

Today, riders in the Stewards stands are commonplace at U.S. tracks and the sport is, in my opinion, better for it.  Perhaps the sport would be better served if a few more Racing Commissions had a few more former jockeys – or at least their perspectives – as well.

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