09/29/2009 12:30PM

Fight the Power


If your horse has been disqualified by the stewards for some kind of interference after the running of a race in California, and you want to appeal that disqualification...you are out of luck. It has been this way since January of 1996, when Rule 1761(a) of the state racing rules was changed to read, "From every decision of the stewards, except a decision concerning the disqualification of a horse due to a foul or a riding or driving infraction, an appeal may be made to the Board."

In other words, live with it, or play somewhere else.

I mention this because Robert Evans, the owner of Marsh Side, is appealing the disqualification of his big horse from first to fourth after the running of the Northern Dancer Stakes at Woodbine on Sept. 20. March Side defeated Just as Well by half a length at the end of the mile and one-half, but it was the fourth-place finish of troubled Champs Elysees down along the rail that tripped the protest. Just as Well was elevated to the victory.

Canada, being a much less contentious place than California, sees no reason why the matter should not be discussed, and a case allowed to be made for reconsideration. A hearing before the Ontario Racing Commission will be held soon. Quite by coincidence, the Northern Dancer appeal follows fresh on the heels of the appeal over the disqualification of the British-owned and trained Prix Vermeille winner Da Re Mi at Longchamp on Sept. 13. The French authorities supported their stewards and let the disqualification stand.

Apparently, Marsh Side's people will suggest that the stewards also should have disqualified third-place Quijano for drifting inward, on the same errant path as Marsh Side, and forcing Champs Elysees into the rail. This presents obvious problems of interpretation. Were Marsh Side and his jockey, Javier Castellano, merely following Quijano's lead? Was Marsh Side the instigator, and Quijano, under Andrasch Starke, reacting out of self defense? And what of Champs Elysees and Garrett Gomez? Does a horse have a right to a hole on the rail if the hole closes before the horse establishes clear ownership?

There is nothing satisfying about a disqualification appeal, except for those owners who once in a great while manage to win one. The horseplayers who bet the disqualified winner are never served by the chance of a reversal, since their pari-mutuel dollars are already long gone. The authority of the stewards, tenuous as it may be, is undermined. Purses go without distribution--in the case of the Northern Dancer, a first-place purse of more than $400,000--and the poor guys inscribing the trophy are at a complete loss. On the bright side, attorneys get billable hours.

When you play a game you sign onto the rules, as well as the interpretation of those rules by designated officials. It must be taken on faith that the people who run the game respect the rules enough to hire qualified officials. If they don't, changes need to be made. And from time to time, a ruling may be so egregiously cockeyed that a robust appeal may be just the thing to shake the trees.

California outlawed DQ appeals in reaction to a pair of drawn-out cases that occupied way too much time and energy. In 1990, Del Mar Derby winner Tight Spot was disqualified from victory for herding the horses to his inside coming down the Del Mar 9-furlong turf chute. Itsallgreektome was elevated to the win. After several hearings, during which the stewards were poorly represented, the DQ was reversed in findings that Tight Spot was only following the angled trajectory of the horse to his inside. This was as subjective an interpretation as the original, and it did nothing for those who bet on Tight Spot in the first place.

In 1994, The Wicked North won the Santa Anita Handicap, but was placed fourth for interference at the top of the stretch. Camera angles were inconclusive (that's another story), but the performance of Alex Solis on the horse allegedly bothered was positively Shakespearean. An appeal ensued, at which The Wicked North's attorney tried to introduce a computer generated over-head view of the incident that he said would exonerate their horse. He was praised by the hearing officer for his initiative, but since the stewards did not have such a tool at their disposal when they made their decision, it was a pointless exercise. The disqualification stood.

There are few things more frustrating that being penalized for a crime you are certain you did not commit, just as the feelings of injustice over a perceived bad call can last a lifetime. I had three eyeball-high pitches called for strike three in three straight at-bats one afternoon long ago, by an ump who'd never been behind the plate before. I was 12, and I felt betrayed by a system I trusted. It is up to the people who run the game to make sure that trust does not wear too thin.