04/04/2013 9:40AM

Harness Racing: Time for Clearer Disqualification Rules

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The very nature of the word “judge” leaves plenty open for discussion and debate. Whether we are talking about a court verdict, a possible infraction on the racetrack or the final scorecards from a boxing match, the job can often be subjective.

When it comes to racing, judges are often put on the hot seat. They must make tough calls and deal with the firing line from the public. Often enough calls can go either way and I’m willing to accept that fact.

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The one decision which always irks me involves pylon violations. Going from state to state, the rules are foggy at best and hardly provide judges with a strong foundation when deliberating. The rules are filled with the term “may disqualify” and leave too much open for interpretation.

Here are some examples of the wording from various states racing commission websites:

Illinois: “In the event a horse or part of the horse’s sulky leaves the course, and if, in the opinion of the stewards, that action gives the horse an unfair advantage over the other horses in the race, the horse may be disqualified or placed back one or more positions.”

New York: “Any horse or sulky which may partly leave the course shall be disqualified one or more positions, as appropriate, if, in the opinion of the judges, such occurrence has had a material effect on the finish of the race.”

New Jersey: (Taken from Meadowlands program) “. . . a horse (may) be disqualified if it leaves the course . . . Any horse which races either over or inside of the pylons, during any part of the race, may be placed at the determination of the judges.”

Kentucky:  “. . . may be penalized by a disqualification if in the opinion of the judges: (a) The action resulted in the horse gaining an unfair advantage . . . (b) The action helps the horse improve its position in the race (c) The driver goes inside the pylons and does not immediately correct position.”

While the Kentucky rule at least appears to be the most useful for Judges trying to make a decision, it still leaves much open to opinion. What is an unfair advantage?

At the Meadowlands on Saturday (March 30), Mega Lightning clearly raced inside one pylon in the stretch and went on to win race 10 by a nose over Buckeye In Charge. It was announced that he gained an unfair advantage and the horse was placed last. It was one of those grey area situations where the call probably could have gone either way and I’m not about to start crying because the disqualification cost me a winner in my daily analysis.

That said, it does bring into play two questions: 1) What is an unfair advantage? Yes, I’m still trying to answer that one. 2) What is considered fair when deciding how far down to place the horse?

After watching the regular camera angle and head-on shot numerous times, I still have no idea whether Mega Lightning gained an unfair advantage. I would have a hard time saying he, beyond the shadow of a doubt, did or did not gain an unfair advantage. It looked to me like driver Simon Allard went inside of the pylons while looking for racing room, immediately corrected his course without gaining ground and then set his charge loose to win the race. But, I wasn’t one of the Judges that night.

The second question is just as interesting. Did Mega Lightning deserve to be placed last? Obviously the rules allow for it, but did the punishment fit the crime? Mega Lightning and Come On Ridge (the horse to his outside) were both attempting to go into the same path and driver John Campbell clearly was cognizant of Mega Lightning and elected to somewhat change his course with Come On Ridge. If Campbell doesn’t change course, would Mega Lightning have had enough room to close as fast as he did and finish first? No. Would he have finished last? No. Video evidence shows no sign that Allard made Campbell move slightly to his right. That leads me to the conclusion that you can’t penalize Allard for Campbell’s reaction and if you place Mega Lightning it should be no worse than second.

Typically the Judges’ room is filled with three qualified officials and majority rules. Having no idea on the opinions of the individuals that night, I would argue that majority should not rule in cases of disqualification. If two reasonably knowledgeable people can watch a race and judge an infraction differently, there should be no penalty. The judgment should always be as it is when a referee goes under the hood in an NFL game – indisputable evidence. If there is any doubt or if the video doesn’t provide a crystal-clear outcome, there should be no disqualification.

My second and perhaps more important point deals with the rules. Why can’t we just adopt a set of rules on this issue that is clearer and standard throughout the United States? While I was unable to locate via the web an exact wording of the Canadian rules, a couple of sources confirmed that going inside one pylon results in just a fine. Two consecutive pylon violations while being lapped-on another horse(s) at the wire results in being placed behind those horses. Going inside of three consecutive pylons would result in the horse being placed last (though I’m getting conflicting reports now that you can get dq’d for going inside a pylon).

I’m not sure I love the idea of a horse gaining an advantage by going inside of two pylons, winning the race by two lengths and facing no disqualification, but at least the rules are firm and consistent.

My recommendation would be a new set of rules which cover all the bases and leave the second-guessing to a minimum. This benefits everyone. The drivers and bettors will know the outcome of a possible violation immediately and the Judges will not have to deal with upset people because they will be following the letter of the law.

Rules for pylon violations

1) Any horse which leaves the course while on a turn, or the first pylon off a turn, will be automatically disqualified and placed last except in the case of rule 3 section b. Driver may also receive a fine.

2) Any single pylon violation in the stretch where only the wheel of the racing bike leaves the course shall be judged as follows:

a) If the horse showed clear and obvious forward progress, gaining at least a neck in ground by making the move, he will be disqualified and placed last.

b) If indisputable evidence of gaining ground does not exist, the horse will not de disqualified but the driver will face a fine.

3) Any pylon violation where horse and/or the complete race bike goes inside of a pylon shall result in being placed last unless:

a) On non-stretch straightaways, horse is forced into that position by another horse or unforeseen act of nature and driver immediately corrects position within three pylons time and prior to a turn.

b) On turns, horse is forced into that position by another horse or unforeseen act of nature and driver immediately corrects position within two pylons time.

c) In the stretch, horse is forced into that position by another horse or unforeseen act of nature and driver immediately corrects position before following pylon.

4) Any multi-pylon violation in the stretch shall result in an automatic disqualification to last.

5) Any multi-pylon violation on a straightaway other than the homestretch shall result in a fine for the driver.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.