The lowly whip: the most treasured of all pieces of a jockey's equipment


HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Polished and lined up like soldiers in their ranks, the size-4 racing boots belonging to Earlie Fires are the epitome of the attention a good valet shows for his jockey's equipment.

Unlike the expensive boots, Fires' whips sit atop his shelves, in no particular order.

Each pair of boots costs about five times as much a whip and gets considerably more care.

But veteran valet Buddy Hasher knows which piece of equipment a jockey treasures more.

"One day, I left a pair of Earlie's boots in the dryer and forgot about them," Hasher says. "I came in the morning and they were ruined. I felt terrible. I told Earlie I'd replace them. He told me to forget it."

That wasn't Fires' reaction the day Hasher let another jockey take one of his whips.

A jockey in town from New Orleans -- Hasher thinks it was Eddie Delahoussaye -- told Hasher there had been a mixup. Fires, the jockey said, had accidentally taken one of his whips when Fires was last in New Orleans. So he was going to take it back.

When Fires found out, he told Hasher he didn't have any of Delahoussaye's whips. Delahoussaye mistakenly had taken one of Fires' whips.

According to Hasher, Fires wasn't pleased.

"That was the only problem Earlie and I have ever had," Hasher says, smiling. "He's kind of spooky about his whip. If you buy one, it'll cost you 20, 30 dollars. But it means a whole lot more to a jock than that."

As a baseball player coddles his bat, a jockey favors a particular whip. And as a baseball player can splinter his favorite bat, a whip's life is limited.

"For some guys, a whip is like a security blanket," says jockey Jerry Bailey. "But you learn not depend on one whip too much, because they can break or get run over by a tractor if you drop it and the outriders can't find it in time."

Still, once a favorite is established, it is loved. Rarely, if ever, will a jockey grab any whip on his shelf when he's headed out to ride an important race.

"They're all pretty much the same for me," says Eclipse-award winning jockey Craig Perret. "But I'll have a certain stick I like to use in stakes races. Once you win a stakes with a certain whip, you'll probably stick with it."

Trainer Jimmy Croll affirms that trainers do not want their horses to feel pain from a whip. Horses remember bad experiences and will do anything to avoid a repeat.

Those who feel the whip, and learn to associate racing with that experience, might never win again.

"Too much whip on horses is not good," Croll said. "It can make them stop. They'll resent it."

What can have as much influence as anything, most jockeys say, is the loud popping noise a whip generates. Stand away from the noise of the grandstand, and the loud crack of whips sounds like gunshots.

What creates the noise is a little piece of leather at the end of the whip, roughly the size of a deck of cards, called the popper.

Above the popper are small leather "feathers," which are mandatory and help prevent the shaft from cutting a horse.

The shaft itself is essentially a fishing pole cut to length. Whips can be no longer than 30 inches and will be checked if they appear to be longer.

"Before I was able to get the fiberglass rods," says 75-year-old craftsman Smokey Hershenson of Lexington, Ky., "I used to go down to the Sears and Roebuck a buy fishing poles."

Hershenson covers the shaft in plastic and the handle in leather that resembles a golf club grip. Some grips are straight from a golf pro shop.

"You know about your golf sticks, don't you?" Hershenson says. "Same way for a jock and his whip. Wants the handle to feel just so."

Hershenson is a retired valet who has been making whips since 1975. He knows what his customers want. Bailey likes a stiff, light whip. Perret's whips "aren't so stiff."

A jockey keeps his whips in his tack bag when he travels, along with his saddle, boots and pants. Rarely will a jock let his tack bag out of sight, meaning checking it through on an airline flight is out of the question.

"Want to see a jock get mad?" Bailey says. "Watch an airline try to check his whip through with the luggage. Most of the time they have no idea what it is. They'll think it's anything from a blowgun to a bow and arrow."

When the jockey and horse leave the gate, the whip must be held in the down position. Sometime during the race, often around the far turn, the jockey will twirl the whip into the cocked position.

That is no small accomplishment, considering he must maintain control of the reins and keep his balance on a thundering thoroughbred going 35 mph.

When they prepare to dismount, some jockeys will wave the whip skyward, as if gesturing to the heavens in thanks for returning safely.

Not so. It is yet another track tradition that lives for tradition's sake.

"That's a salute to the stewards," Bailey says. "It used to mean you had no claim of foul, no beefs. Now you use a radio or a telephone, but, for some jockeys, that is still a job they can do with their stick."

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