One of the most controversial topics in the world of thoroughbred horse racing is the use of electrical devices to stimulate horses in a race. If you have ever wondered what is a jigger in horse racing, this article will explain what the device is and how it is used. We will also examine some of the ethical concerns surrounding the use of jiggers, buzzers, and batteries in horse racing.
An Electrical Problem for Horse Racing – The Jigger
In 1999 Louisiana jockey Billy Patin was literally riding high. He had secured the mount on a horse named Valhol in the prestigious Arkansas Derby. It was quite an achievement for the Louisiana rider who had spent his career on the smaller racing circuits. Even though the horse was a longshot, Patin could not see beyond the possibility that the horse could win and carry the jockey to the Kentucky Derby. The Arkansas Derby is considered one of the most important prep races for the Triple Crown series.
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Patin grew up on the small bull rings and bush tracks of Louisiana where jockeys learn to ride not long after they are able to walk. On those small tracks jockeys are also known to use an electrical device to gain a competitive edge. Known as a jigger in Australia and other European racing circuits and as a buzzer in the United States, the device is a small handheld unit that is designed to administer a mild shock to a horse as it runs in a race. It is most often concealed in the jockey’s hand and placed against the neck of the horse.
There can be little doubt that Billy Patin was familiar with these machines. He chose to carry one on the day he raced in the Arkansas Derby aboard Valhol. Patin had likely done it hundreds of times before without being caught. Why would this race be any different?
Everyone was surprised when the 30-1 longshot Valhol passed up legitimate contenders for the Kentucky Derby and bolted for the stretch to win the Arkansas Derby. Patin and the winning connections celebrated in the Winner’s Circle and proclaimed their intention to head to Kentucky. But the celebration was short-lived. Patin had made a serious error, one that has haunted his career from that day forward.
Because the race was so important to the Triple Crown series, NBC broadcast it live to millions of people. The network had also reached agreements with several jockeys to “mic” them up during the race. The fans watching at home would be able to hear the jockeys as they competed in the race. As it turned out, they would also be able to hear something else: the unmistakable buzzing sound of a jigger being applied by Patin to Valhol.
Even worse, video footage from the 1999 Arkansas Derby cleared showed patin dropping the jigger to the race track as the horse galloped out after the win. The evidence was hard to dispute and Valhol was disqualified from the win. There would be no Kentucky Derby for Valhol, Patin, or trainer Dallas Keen that year.
Sadly, Patin has continued in his ways after the horse racing scandal in Arkansas. He was arrested along with his brother and another jockey in 2015 for attempting to fix a race at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana.
Why Do Jockeys Use Jiggers in Horse Racing?
The jigger, buzzer, or machine in horse racing is used for one purpose. It is applied to make a horse run faster than it would under normal circumstances. The stimulation often works, causing horses that are perceived as longshots to win races that they should not win. But why would a jockey risk their career by breaking the rules in this manner?
Some believe that jockeys use a jigger because they don’t make enough money when horses fail to win. Others say that jockeys turn to machines because they are less talented than their rivals. Still others will tell you that on any given day at the race track every single jockey is carrying a machine.
There can be little doubt that using a jigger in horse racing can give some horses an advantage. Other horses have been known to stop running when the jigger is applied. There is no evidence to support that a horse has been permanently injured from the use of a buzzer, but this is hard to determine. What is known is that the machines are widely used. In some jurisdictions they are used more often than in others, but almost every racing circuit has been tainted by the use of electronic devices.
Are Jiggers in Horse Racing Illegal?
The use of a jigger in horse racing is expressly prohibited by the rules of racing. Jockeys that are caught using the device can be suspended from racing. Repeated violations could mean a jockey getting banned for life from horse racing.
Aside from giving a horse an unfair advantage against its rivals, a jigger also deceives the betting public. When bettors do not know that a jigger is being used, they are not being given all the information to fairly handicap a race. This is one reason that racing stewards take such a hard stance against the devices. They are trying to preserve the integrity of horse racing as a betting game.
Another Side of the Jigger Issue
There is a small but vocal minority in horse racing that believes the jigger should actually be legalized. These individuals believe that jiggers are more humane than the use of a whip in horse racing.
Horses are typically stimulated in a race with a jockey’s whip to encourage their best effort. The horses may be flagged around the shoulder area with the whip, or they may be hit harder on the flanks. This is an accepted practice in horse racing that is often questioned by animal rights activists. Groups like PETA believe that hitting horses with a whip is abusive.
This has led some people to question whether a jigger poses the same type of pain to a horse. Some of these people even go so far as to say that jiggers should be legalized and listed in the racing program when a jockey carries them in a race. They believe that this would make the bettors happy, and some handicappers agree. They believe that jiggers are okay as long as the bettor knows when they are being used.
This side of the issue opens up many questions and concerns. For example, how could a race be accurately handicapped when no one knows for sure the effect a jigger will have on a horse? Who would make the decision to carry a jigger? The owner, trainer, or jockey? It seems that there are simply too many concerns to justify the use of a jigger in horse racing.
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