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.



inquiry More than 1 year ago
I have written you Mr. Hovdey, in the past concerning the SoCal Stewards "Amazing Kreskin School Of Stewardship." To wit the stewards "determine" if a foul occurs whether or not the fouled horse "lost a placing." IMO only God knows this. The matter is best approched simply. If a foul occurs the offender is place behind the horse fouled. That simple. You have replied that it is consistency you request. Consistency in whatever application of placings lost that concerns you. I note that the "lost placing" rule means if an inexperienced or lousy rider is fouled he or she may totally compromise a horse's chances by virtually pulling his mount up just to stay on board. Should Garrett Gomez be punished because he is a good enough rider to absorb the foul and "keep riding"??? (another common misperception of layman analyzing a foul... "He never stopped riding"). In this case there was no Kreskin analysis but... If the stewards thought the foul was caused in the rear end why did they look at the head on replay 50 times and the rear pan shot two or three times during their inquiry??? My analysis: On the first bump(s) enuff blame to go around all three ways but the second bump by Game On Dude into Candy under left handed whipping by Sutherland was not only egregious but dangerous. The message to the riding colony is that dangerous riding is accepted and won't be punished. Any injuries or deaths at this meet in the future due to jocks' injuries in the future will be partially the responsibility of the two male stewards. Being generous, Sutherland did not know the close proximity of the other horses when she whipped Game On Dude 4 times left handed in the stretch and continued whipping even after the first contact OR did not care as she made NO effort to straighten out her horse who was clearly bearing out. Compare this to BC Classic 1 when Gate Dancer did almost the exact same thing to Slew O Gold from the outside and was justifiably DQed. Sincerely, inquiry
leespring23 More than 1 year ago
This running of the SA Handicap should be forever be referred to as "The Big Crap". Because thats what most people witnessed on Saturday. Setsuko is "blameless" but a victim. The ex-Mrs. Mike Smith gets a phantom-bump, which makes it OK to jump three paths off the rail - while go left handed on a turn in tight !!! Then Coach Baffert get to talk up not just "Sham"tal, but Rosario and one of the empty heads in the stewards box too. I had Setsuko, and sure I`m bitter about it. But I`ll be back. What about all the dime and dollar casual fans who had 3-5 Twirling Candy in their superfectas ? Will they ???
Del More than 1 year ago
Dr Fager, You just about summed it up for me with your last comment-"In the end it is not the stews, trainer, or jock who is to blame though - it is me for being the "mark". " LOL! I can let it rest now.
Spike More than 1 year ago
The stewards took all of 12 minutes to figure out how to keep Chantal up. There is no doubt that the horse committed a foul and should have came down. The fact that the stewards even speak to the jockeys is ludicrous, what other sport does this when a foul takes place? This has to be changed immediately. I agree that Baffert's antics are getting old now, however, he is still the darling of west coast trainers over here (from management's view). It is irrelevant whether a horse is the "best horse in the race". If a foul is committed that may have cost a horse a better placing (this is the rule) the horse should come down. Finally, no surprise that most women observers have the opinion that the stewards did the right thing....Chantal made history with that win!
inquiry More than 1 year ago
Your comment regarding the stewards speaking to jockeys or trainers is well founded. Stewards have many video angles to view incidents with their own eyes. Some jocks can present their case better due to a wide variety of reasons including but not limited to verbal skills, familiarity with English, intelligence, etc. Don't forget the Allemeuse incident at Saratoga when a new to America Jose Santos was not able to communicate effectively in English and the wrong horse was taken down.
Del More than 1 year ago
Scott Chaney, speaking for the stewards, said "We hold Setsuko blameless". You don't need a dvr for that. You don't even need a hearing aid. Setsuko surprised me, as well as most people. It was ironic that last year, in the Santa Anita Derby, Espinoza cut off Lookin at Lucky with Who's Up. Who's Up was out of the money so the stewards couldn't help out Baffert. Now, Espinoza is the one who got the raw deal. For me, that explains it. Baffert, the phone call, politics.
Lynn Schock More than 1 year ago
I sent the following letter to the members of the California Racing Board: After the decision of the stewards (Tom Ward and C. Scott Chaney) last Saturday to let Game On Dude stand as the winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, I have decided that I will no longer play the races at Santa Anita because I can’t trust that the results will be honest. In the fifty plus years that I have been watching races, I have never been surer that a horse was coming down. Evidently, I was not alone. Besides the thousands of fans that booed the outcome, steward Kim Sawyer, jockey Gary Stevens, and retired steward Pete Pedersen among others thought so too, and we all had plenty of time to watch the replay of the race as it played over and over for twelve minutes as the stewards over analyzed the race. In fact, other than the connections of Game On Dude and the two stewards who made the decision, I can’t find any experienced race watcher who thinks Game On Dude shouldn’t have come down. What disturbs me most is that Bob Baffert felt he could call the stewards to give his interpretation during their deliberations. I have read that Tom Ward said he would not have taken the call if he knew it was from trainer Baffert, but I would like to know why Baffert thought he could call. Does he sort of have the run of the place? Even though the call was brief, it appears that it helped work the right outcome for Baffert. The last few days, I have tried to determine the background and experience of the stewards involved because jockey Victor Espinoza stated that they were inexperienced and didn’t know what they were looking at. I was told by a lady at the Racing Board, that I should contact Mike Martin for the information. I called him three times, and got his answering tape three times on three different days so the Racing Board wasn’t much help. I did determine on my own, by searching the internet, that Tom Ward has been working in the racing industry for some time, so inexperience doesn’t seem to be the his problem. There must be some other explanation for his decision. Espinoza might be right in one of his other observations: The decision was just insane. If you were wondering, I did bet Setsuko, and if he had been declared the winner, I would have also collected on the Pick 4 the next race, but I have had tough losses many times over the years which didn’t bother me half as much because this time I believe that I was robbed by the racing officials. Whatever the explanation is for this wrong decision, I believe that the Racing Board should hire new stewards for Santa Anita so that the confidence of the public is restored. Sincerely, Lynn Schock, horseplayer
Dr. Fager More than 1 year ago
I can't believe I am still so mad about the non-call, the call that wasn't, the shake-down at Anita or whatever you want to call it.... I am wondering though what ole Bob and company has on Chaney and Ward or perhaps it was the stewards that had pay-back on their minds for Victor as one of the fellow respondents indicated. This could very well be. That is the problem with such egregious errors - they make conspiracy theorists out of all of us - after all, nobody can be that blatantly biased, somebody's hand must have gotten greased, politics must have played a role, etc.. Fact is, it simply could be that these stewards are simply an incompetent bunch - nothing intentional on their part - rather, they just don't know what they are looking at, got caught up in the moment and became paralyzed into non-action - taking over 12 minutes to come to their decision seems to support the latter. We have a cat that is dumb as a thumb but we don't blame him for this and still love em. I suggest the fans embrace the stewards and racing officials in a likewise manner. For me though, I vow never to bet on a race at a track that employs this group in this capacity and I mean it. There is a tipping point for everything and mine came on Saturday. Anyone that plays this game understands it is hard enough to win on the up-and-up and near impossible when not. In the end it is not the stews, trainer, or jock who is to blame though - it is me for being the "mark".
meathead01 More than 1 year ago
Lynn Schock totally agree with you as I have been involved in racing for 50 years also and this decision was wrong. do you have the address to the board? I think as horse players we should let them know how we feel. and in answer to your question about B Baffert in my opinion he does run Cal racing in a big way. good letter Lynn MH01
Lynn Schock More than 1 year ago
What I did was email all the board members who listed an email address at the California Racing Board's web site. Some members like Bo Derek don't show an email address. I received responses from board member, John Harris, and from Mike Martin, who works for the Board.
Joe walter More than 1 year ago
hovedy should retire or just write about retired horses and jockeys. No other female jockey apparently deserves any credit other than Julie krone. Horses are not dq'd for drifting out at the top of the stretch when they don't cut anybody off and they don't make contact. When sutherland hit her horse left handed at 3-16 the horse ran straight. Hovedy should be banned from writing about female jockeys and racing action.
donald brodt More than 1 year ago
G.O.D. was maintaining a straight course and T.C. made first contact. That's how I see it.
David Dinerman More than 1 year ago
I did not bet the race, but, or should I say BUTT, 'GOD' (Game on Dude).....should have been placed either 2nd behind Setsuko or even behind TC and the Chantal should have gotten days for a dangerous manuever (though I do like and admire her abililty). She hit her horse improperly FOR THAT PARTICULAR POINT IN THAT RACE (maybe she meant to ride TC out, maybe not, but she'll never say). but Setsuko lost by a nose, and that clearly would have been made up, but not for the demolition derby caused by Chantals' decision to hit GOD on the left side on the final turn. WITH NO ONE TO HER INSIDE. What was the point of that? Bad decision. BTW: Cheating to ask your spouse for consultation. No more using 'expert witnesses!.'
Cris More than 1 year ago
My husband watched the race and remarked from the start how Twirling Candy was getting boxed in from the start. The circus on the far turn was a terror and I am grateful that everyone came home. I am sorry to hear about Setsuko I hope he is ok. I am concerned if Twirling Candy is ok. What gets me is why it took so long to make a incorrect ruling? No matter what, the house keeps the money because Twirling Candy was out of the money. If they want to keep Baffert off the phone don't accept his calls at times like this. All those replays and they can not see that Candy was making his run until he was banged out of it. I would have placed Game On Dude last and moved everyone else up. Safety first.