02/22/2015 12:16PM

Watchmaker: Real accountability needed for stewards


It is often said in baseball, and in varying degrees other sports, that you know the umpires are doing a good job when you don’t even know they are there. The same should be true for stewards in our game.

Unfortunately, that was not the case Saturday for anyone who played or paid attention to the stakes-packed card at Gulfstream Park. Instead of the equine performances between the rails being the focus of celebration and analysis, the Gulfstream stewards made themselves the story with three rulings on the card. When taken on their own, their rulings ranged from debatable to bad. But when taken in context with each other, which is essential because all anyone ever asks of stewards anywhere is some level of consistency, two of these rulings were downright indefensible.

Right here, let me attempt to explain why this is so important. You might offer the cleanest Thoroughbred racing in the history of the world, but if horseplayers don’t think they are getting a fair shake from the stewards stand it undermines our faith in the integrity of the game. That could lead to decreased participation. And as we all know (or should know), if the dollars wagered by horseplayers start walking away, the game, as we know it, collapses.

The first of Saturday’s controversial rulings occurred in the fourth race, the Rampart Stakes. House Rules, in front and on her way to victory, came in in upper stretch, forcing Sheer Drama to check. What House Rules did was an actionable foul. But fortunately for House Rules, Sheer Drama came back on and narrowly got the place. When she did, it negated the consideration that the actions of House Rules cost Sheer Drama a bigger piece of the purse, because Sheer Drama was never going to finish ahead of House Rules, no matter what. In the interests of full disclosure, I needed House Rules to stay up. But speaking as objectively as I can, I believe leaving House Rules up was the right call because even though she committed a foul in the technical sense, it cost no one a larger piece of the purse.

Enter the Fountain of Youth. There are probably as many different opinions of what happened in the stretch as people who saw the race. But what I saw was Frosted come out and bump Upstart in midstretch, Itsaknockout bump Upstart on his right flank soon after, and then Upstart drift out into Itsaknockout, with Itsaknockout getting checked for embellishment. Yet unlike the Rampart and House Rules, what Upstart did, in my opinion, was far less of a foul, if even a foul at all. Itsaknockout hit him on his flank first.

What I also saw, and this is a very important point, was as all of this was going on, Upstart was going to win the Fountain of Youth, no matter what. And when Itsaknockout clearly secured second, I also saw that no one in that race was denied a larger piece of the purse by another’s actions. This was the exact same reasoning the Gulfstream stewards invoked to leave House Rules up, and yet they took Upstart down.

In other words, if the Upstart disqualification wasn’t a bad enough call when taken on its own (and I thought it was a bad call all on its own), it becomes a terrible call when taken in context with the Rampart and House Rules.

It only took a little more than a half-hour for the Upstart disqualification to gain additional context as an awful call. In the race right after the Fountain of Youth, Danish Dynaformer came out through the stretch and slammed repeatedly into Dreaming of Gold and then got to the wire first by only a neck over that opponent. This was the clearest example of an actionable offense all day at Gulfstream, and by a wide margin. Nevertheless, the Gulfstream stewards, with darkness approaching, left Danish Dynaformer up. And, for the record, I was not pari-mutuelly involved in any real way in Gulfstream’s last two races.

Horseplayers deal with questionable stewards decisions all the time. But now that the competency of stewards has become a question at the very highest levels of the game – the non-action concerning Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall still reverberates – we need to introduce some real stewards accountability, and quickly. We need something stronger than sanitized press releases issued hours after controversial calls. And the whole process can start by appointing stewards on the basis of their actual resumes instead of their political connections, or as a reward for sticking around a long time. Billions of dollars, and the game’s integrity, are at stake.

Some quick notes on a few of Saturday’s stakes:

Upstart and the rest of the Fountain of Youth crew are getting slammed for being involved in a staggerfest and for the slow final time. It wasn’t Upstart’s best performance, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Two times last week, colleague Jay Privman reported that Upstart was not trained as aggressively for the Fountain of Youth as he was for his seasonal bow in the Holy Bull. It was a bridge race. With that in mind, Upstart was good. Again.

Dual Eclipse Award winner Main Sequence was better than good winning the Mac Diarmida in his prep for Dubai. And the scary thing is, you know trainer Graham Motion left some room for Main Sequence to peak when it really matters.

I was against the Lecomte crew in the Risen Star, and I was wrong. International Star and War Story, the one-two finishers in the Lecomte, ran one-two again Saturday. But while they are better than I gave them credit for, I still don’t consider them first-line Kentucky Derby contenders.
Who was worse Saturday, Frosted or Imperia? I stated on Twitter right after the Fountain of Youth that I was signing the divorce papers with Frosted, who went from looking like a sure-fire Fountain of Youth winner to jelly in a matter of moments. But in retrospect, these two showed too much potential last year to give up on them just yet.

There were three erstwhile stepping-stones toward the Kentucky Oaks on Saturday – the Busher, won by Condo Commando, the Davona Dale, upset by Ekati’s Phaeton, and the Rachel Alexandra, won by I’m a Chatterbox – and for my money, I’m a Chatterbox was easily the most impressive of the group. I’m a Chatterbox showed admirable versatility coming from last to score decisively, the exact opposite approach she employed winning last month’s Silverbulletday in front-running style. Man, has she improved for Larry Jones.