03/06/2011 4:59PM

Full Metal Handicap


Let's get the smiley faces out of the way first. Both Game on Dude and Setsuko turned in noteworthy performances in the Santa Anita Handicap on the afternoon of March 5. It was a shame one of them had to lose. Setsuko gets high marks for overcoming lost ground around all turns, keeping his feet when he was bumped by favored Twirling Candy, and then gutting it out to the wire. Game on Dude took full advantage of a gorgeous trip and a smooth piece of rating from Chantal Sutherland, and then at the end was the picture of fierce determination to beat Setsuko by a nose. It was a case of two talented underachievers finally getting the right moment to shine.

However, the race instead will be remembered for what the Santa Anita stewards did, or did not do, or did not see, or chose no to take seriously -- depending on your point of view. And at the end of all discussion it comes down to the skills of the men and woman at the reins, and the standards to which they are held, that will make or break the sport as dangerously beautiful exercise in controlled chaos. To wit:

If there is one place a rider is obligated to have precise control over his horse it's on the turns. Centrifugal force is a bitch. If a racehorse is not handled properly, holding the line, awful carnage could ensue, and for the most part jockeys abide by agreements of the arena, both written and un. 

After about a mile of the mile and a quarter had been run, Game on Dude reached the front of the Handicap pack almost by default after the pacesetters to his inside, First Dude and Aggie Engineer, were finished midway around the final turn.

Almost immediately, though, Twirling Candy and Setsuko were alongside, the three of them abreast and turning left as the top of the stretch loomed. It was at this point Sutherland drew her whip left-handed and gave Game on Dude two raps on the left hip. Repeat -- the jockey hit the horse left-handed while making a left-handed turn. Game on Dude reacted as any horse would. He shifted to the right, even while trying to make his left-hand turn, going from lane two to lane four in a matter of strides.

Inexperienced, weak or especially excitable riders are prime candidates for having trouble making a controlled turn for home when they are on a contender. The adrenalin is pumping through both horse and rider, and from time to time there is an accidental drift. The most dramatic example from recent years took place in the 2005 Preakness when Scrappy T. reacted to a left-handed smack from Ramon Dominguez turning into the stretch and nearly dropped Afleet Alex in the process (it's a doozy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfFzODoD7YY).

There is also the cagey veteran's floatation device, most famously deployed by Angel Cordero in the 1980 running of the Preakness (why do this to the Preakness?). Angel did everything in his power to keep from bothering Genuine Risk on the turn that day. Really, he did. Just ask him ... after enjoying the videotape once again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0iFI7aLsQY.

What Sutherland did was not intentional -- at least in terms of taking a chance at purposeful disruption. But in deciding her horse needed to be struck on the left side at that precise moment, thereby allowing him to shift his position in traffic, she set into motion a chain of events that were visually spectacular, potentially dangerous, and ultimately distracting.

Herded outward by Game on Dude, Twirling Candy banged up against Setsuko, who had made a sharp, professional turn under Victor Espinoza and had been holding a hard, straight line. Setsuko, a bull of a colt, shifted slightly at the contact but maintained his momentum, while Twirling Candy bounced off Setsuko and back toward Game on Dude, who was now racing five paths from the rail, and being vigorously whipped left-handed. By now Twirling Candy had lost a degree of forward momentum. When Game on Dude bounced him this time Twirling Candy made contact with the back half of Setsuko, turning Setsuko's hindquarters slightly outward. Still, Setsuko kept coming -- and Twirling Candy kept bouncing, this time back into the hindquarters of Game on Dude, who was briefly turned at an awkward angle before righting the ship. One more bounce for Twirling Candy into Setsuko was enough for the favorite. As Twirling Candy retreated under Joel Rosario, the two leaders went on about the business of trying to finish first, which Game on Dude did, by that desperate nose. (Don't take my word for it. Go to http://www.calracing.com/ and feast on all the replays you can eat.)

All of the action in the above paragraph was fruit of the initial foul -- when Game on Dude herded Twirling Candy outward while turning for home.  For some reason, however, the stewards chose to concentrate on the spectaular dramatics of the bumping once the three horses had straightened into the stretch. (Here it must be noted that it was a 2-1 decision, with Kim Sawyer in favor of disqualifying Game on Dude but outpolled by Tom Ward and Scott Chaney.) From the stretch view, all they had to determine was whether or not Setsuko's ultimate placing was compromised by the action Game on Dude initiated. That would be pretty much covered in a single viewing. Okay two for good measure. As for the real foul, I live with someone who glanced at the pan shot once and said, "There's where it started," pointing to Game on Dude being whipped twice left-handed while trying to turn left. But then, Julie Krone turned for home like that a few thousand times.

If nothing else, the botched call of the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap will supply grist for future conferences among officials. They still have those, right? It is hard to just turn the page, however, without hoping for a few other issues to be raised:

-- More cameras would give stewards a better three-dimensional picture of such incidents, subtle as they may be, and give them more confidence to make the tough calls. (The videotape from Saturday's race is barely sufficient -- the pan shot shows Sutherland's hits without a providing a clear idea of how many lanes Game on Dude shifted, while in the head-on shot, the hits are obscured by the patrol judge's tower, but the shift outward is clear.)

-- Heightened awareness of the consequences for allowing such fouls to go unpunished, a practice that nurtures a climate of disrespect among the participants and borderline anarchy when the money's down.

-- An apology to trainer David Bernstein, jockey Kent Desormeaux, and the family of the late Phil Hersh, owner of The Wicked North, who won the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap but was disqualified to fourth for an incident at the top of the stretch that was nowhere nearly as apparent as the foul for which Game on Dude was not cited.

-- A gag order on the principals involved in a heated inquiry, especially when they choose to gather en masse in the winner's circle and play to the HRTV cameras, as did Bob Baffert, the trainer of Game on Dude, during the lengthy post-race ordeal. Be nervous, fine. Huddle with your owners at a tasteful remove from the business at hand. But do not coach your jockey on what to say to the stewards -- as Baffert tried to do with Sutherland -- or loudly proclaim the injustice of the proceedings before a decision has been rendered.

As for what Baffert did after his number stayed up, only he can do something about. Relieved that the bullet had been dodged, Baffert sought out Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, who was standing off to the side of the winner's circle, quietly dealing with the blow. Baffert, grinning to beat the band, tried a "can't you take a joke" approach with the comment, "I know you wouldn't have wanted to win that way."

Mandella said nothing, but gave Baffert a cold look I would not want to see twice, then repaired to his barn to treat Setsuko's leg, swollen from the contact caused by Baffert's horse.