08/20/2004 12:00AM

Arlington stewards need wake-up call


NEW YORK - David Ashforth, columnist for the British racing daily The Racing Post and author of the international not-quite-best-seller "Ringers & Rascals: The True Story of Racing's Greatest Con Artists," tells a funny story about the stewards at Ascot.

There is an age-old tradition at the home of the Royal Meeting of ringing a bell as the horses turn into the stretch. No one can remember why a bell is rung at that stage, but so it has been since King Edward VII was in short pants. When queried on the matter, Ashforth replied with unerring journalistic accuracy, "It's to wake the stewards up."

A bell was needed at Arlington Park last Saturday when the stewards got it wrong in yet another rough-and-tumble running of the Arlington Million.

That Powerscourt, who neither bumped, brushed, nor impeded any other horse at any stage of the Million's 10 furlongs, was disqualified despite being much the best horse in the race, was a travesty of justice. Has he been made into a scapegoat for the scrimmaging that occurred between Epalo and Kicken Kris?

Something had to be done to sort out the bump that a weakening Epalo gave Kicken Kris, a jolt so hard that for a moment Kicken Kris resembled a ping-pong ball between the German invader and the rail. So shaken was Kicken Kris's rider Kent Desormeaux, you could hear his teeth rattling for an hour after the race was over.

Maybe it was the noise Desormeaux put up that prompted the stewards to make their incomprehensible decision. In any case, the 2004 Arlington Million is history and the best horse in the race has been officially placed fourth.

The head-on camera view of the stretch run shows Powerscourt drifting in toward the rail under right-hand whipping as he assumes the lead from Epalo. It also reveals that Epalo was drifting in as well, without ever being touched by Powerscourt. These two facts the stewards could not fail to have noticed unless, of course, they were in need of an alarm clock at the head of the stretch.

The side-camera view shows that Powerscourt did not take Epalo's ground until he was clear of the German horse. It was at this point that Andrasch Starke on Epalo, perhaps a bit unnerved in his Chicago debut, snatched his mount up, unnecessarily and too late. Epalo's leftward momentum carried him into Kicken Kris, who volleyed against the rail before running on bravely to cross the line second.

Was Powerscourt's rider, Jamie Spencer, guilty of anything more than good, strong, tactical race-riding, the kind of thing that once made Angel Cordero a household name? That Spencer should have, and could have, kept a straight line on his mount, does not alter the fact that Powerscourt never touched another horse through the stretch. This in spite of the official race chart comment, which for Epalo reads, "checked and altered course while being bumped in deep stretch." Checked and altered course, yes. Bumped another horse, yes. Bumped by another horse, no.

Nor did Powerscourt take any other horse's ground until it was safe to do so. If you are in agreement with that observation, Powerscourt deserved to keep the race.

If Epalo had somehow held on to second, the stewards' decision would have been made easier. Then they could have disqualified him and justice would have been served. But as Kicken Kris finished in front of the offending Epalo, the stewards could not disqualify the German horse.

Enter the scapegoat factor.

With the grandstanding Desorm-eaux giving Spencer the thumbs down sign as Kicken Kris crossed the line, and afterward declaiming in Tarzan-like fashion that "this is a matter between him [Spencer] and me," were the Arlington stewards intimidated into making their decision?

Desormeaux's claim that Kicken Kris "would have won easily had this not happened" is hot air. Powers-court had blown by Kicken Kris approaching the eighth pole and it is highly unlikely that Kicken Kris could have offered the winner a renewed challenge, even if he had not been impeded by Epalo.

In Ireland and Britain, the stewards have it at their discretion to let the original order of finish stand after such incidents as those that occurred in the Million. They then might fine or even suspend jockeys in the boots of Spencer and Starke, although Desormeaux, acting merely as a witness, is deserving of censure for his unsportsmanlike ontrack conduct.

The 2004 Arlington Million has set bells ringing throughout Europe and America. Let us hope that they will insure teams of wide-awake stewards throughout the world at this fall's big international racing carnivals.