06/28/2017 2:20PM

Age, layoff, social media cause stewards to scratch 11-year-old

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Stewards at Charles Town Races on Wednesday ordered a horse who was coming off a 6 1/2-year layoff to be scratched from a Thursday claiming race, despite the horse meeting West Virginia’s conditions of eligibility and the owner’s insistence that the horse was sound, according to stewards and the horse’s connections.

Awesome Actor, an 11-year-old horse who last started at Charles Town in December 2010, was ordered scratched from a $5,000 claiming race by the stewards after a conversation on Wednesday morning with both the horse’s trainer, John Williams, and owner, James King, according to Danny Wright, the chief steward at the track. Wright acknowledged that the horse was eligible to be entered but said the stewards initiated the conversation because of critical comments on social media that had reached management at the track.

“We were uncomfortable allowing the horse to start,” Wright said. “This was a no-win situation.”

King, who said he has owned at least a partial share of the horse since early 2011, said he was “pissed off” about the stewards’ decision, saying the horse has been in training for the past five months. He said he offered to have the track veterinarian conduct an examination of the horse and said that he believed the horse would have been competitive in the race.

“He’s a well-bred horse, he’s been training, he’s in great condition, and I think he would have beat those horses by six or seven lengths, even coming out of the 10 hole,” King said.

The case underlines the tensions in the racing industry as the sport places greater emphasis on the health and welfare of its horses. Those tensions have been exacerbated by social media, where both supporters and detractors of the sport draw attention to horses perceived to be at risk, such as older horses returning from long layoffs. Data collected over the last several years have identified horses coming off long layoffs as having a higher risk of injury.

West Virginia racing rules require horses returning from a layoff of six months or longer to have at least one published work prior to being entered in a race. The rules also prohibit horses from running once they have turned 13. Awesome Actor fulfilled both conditions. However, stewards have the discretion to scratch a horse for any reason.

Awesome Actor, a son of Awesome Again out of a Theatrical mare, ran 22 times from November 2008 to December 2010, winning five races, placing second seven times, and running third three times, for earnings of $140,575. In the horse’s last three races, all at Charles Town late in 2010, the horse ran last each time while trained by Ronney Brown and owned by Robert F. Armstrong.

King said he was given a share in the horse early in 2011, with the horse transferred to his Maryland farm. He said the horse was 150 pounds underweight at the time and had worms and an ulcer. He treated the horse’s conditions, the horse’s weight improved gradually, and he intended to put the horse back in training later that year.

However, a dispute with the owner of the horse led to court cases in which King could not enter Awesome Actor until he received full title to the horse because the previous owner was ineligible for a license, King said. That case was only resolved last year, he said.

King said he filed the horse’s papers at Charles Town three months ago. Furthermore, he said the horse had a three-furlong workout at the track on June 10, but the clockers did not identify the horse prior to the horse entering the gate for the workout, so it was not official. The horse’s only published workout occurred on June 24, when he was timed in 51 seconds for four furlongs, breezing, out of the gate.

As is the case for all horses entered on a race card, Awesome Actor would have been examined by a state veterinarian on Thursday prior to being allowed to run. King entered the horse as ineligible to be claimed, under a rule allowing that designation for horses who have not run in more than six months.

King said he does not know what he will do with the horse now that the case has drawn so much publicity.

“This is so unfair,” he said. “The horse was doing great, and I put a lot of money and care into him.”

Wright declined to say if the horse would be allowed to run at Charles Town in the future.

“We did this in the best interests of the public,” he said.