Commentary

Punishment doesn't equal the crime

What penalties should a rider face then he or she kicks a horse?

Updated: October 10, 2013, 6:52 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Harness driver Tim Tetrick repeatedly kicked Captaintreacherous, that sport's No. 1 star, Saturday in the stretch drive of the Tattersalls Pace at The Red Mile in Lexington. While it's impossible to condone kicking an animal, Tetrick's not the real villain here. It is these systems -- whether in standardbred or thoroughbred racing -- that levy penalties so laughably lenient that there is no serious deterrent against breaking the rules.

If the penalty for robbing banks was $100 there would be a lot more bank robbers out there.

Quite often, when harness drivers get locked in battle in the stretch they take a leg out of the stirrups and strike the horse with their foot in the area of the hocks. It's not a whole lot different from using the whip. The kicks are supposed to make the horse give something extra as they near the wire.

Not only did Tetrick do it Saturday, so did Brian Sears, who was driving Vegas Vacation, the horse fighting Captaintreacherous to the wire.

How much does it hurt the animal? Is it even effective? I have no idea. Some argue that it really isn't that big of a deal and is less offensive than whipping. That could be, but it's obvious that the practice should be banned, if for no other reason than it sends a horrible message to the general public that the sport is fine with humans kicking defenseless animals.

In Kentucky, Tetrick had reason to believe he could kick away and receive no penalty whatsoever.

But the system had told Tetrick that what he did Saturday was no big deal. Quite often drivers kick horses and judges look the other way. And when something is done about it the wrist isn't slapped, it is gently tapped. Tetrick was caught kicking Captaintreacherous when winning the Cane Pace in September and was fined $100 by the New York State Gaming Commission.

In Kentucky, Tetrick had reason to believe he could kick away and receive no penalty whatsoever. A racing judge there said with the way he interpreted Kentucky's racing rules it was permissible for a driver to strike a horse in the manner Tetrick did. The judge, Rich Williams, said that for a driver to be fined they'd really have to haul back and kick the horse full throttle.

Ok, so what's legal and what isn't? And is kicking a big deal or a minor problem? As for the latter question, apparently it isn't when a driver can do it in a prestigious stakes race and get a $100 fine.

So on Saturday Tetrick is driving a horse in a race with a purse of $215,000, of which the winning driver will receive $5,375. None of that includes what the victory means for Captaintreacherous' value as a sire. He is locked in a life-or-death battle in the stretch with another top pacer and his job is to win the race. So what does he do? He starts kicking the horse.

The question isn't why but why not?

It has been ingrained in him that he what he is doing is either going to go unpunished or result in a meaningless fine and, by the way, his rival driver is kicking away. Should he leave his foot in the stirrups because maybe it's the right thing to do and maybe because kicking is going to result in his being fined less than 2 percent of his personal share for winning, or should he kick? Should he keep his foot in the stirrups and risk losing to a driver who is kicking his horse? What would you do?

At first, the Red Mile judges ruled that neither Tetrick nor Sears would be fined at all, even though harness racing regulations in the state specifically prohibit kicking. On Wednesday, after a healthy round of public outcry, the commission reversed course and fined both drivers $500.

So Tetrick commits a violation, kicking a horse, but comes out $4,875 ahead after the fine and Captaintreacherous adds another prestigious win to his record. How does this make any sense?

The system failed. But when does it not?

We've seen this one a million times: The thoroughbred trainer knows there is a chance he'll get caught giving illegal drugs to his horse but if he does he'll get a 60-day suspension and can still train in absentia while his stable operates under the name of his assistant. When the punishment is so light and the reward of juicing can be a 30 percent win rate and owners beating your door down to give you horses, why play by the rules?

If harness racing truly wants to do away with the problem of drivers kicking horses it can end it in an instant. Just make a rule that any time a driver kicks a horse the driver is suspended for six months and the horse is disqualified. Do that and no one will ever kick a horse again. Fine guys a few hundred dollars for kicking and they'll keep kicking. It's all about deterrents.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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