Updated on 09/17/2011 10:29PM

Dominguez deserves sanctions


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the wake of last Saturday's Preakness, racing has a pair of heroes to hoist on its shoulders, all the way to the Belmont Stakes and beyond.

There were other loose ends, however, dealt with on Wednesday at Pimlico, where local stewards William Passmore, John Burke, and Phil Grove absolved Scrappy T's rider, Ramon Dominguez, of all blame in the incident that nearly dropped Afleet Alex at the top of the stretch.

In spite of Scrappy T's right-handed swerve, Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose survived to win the race, thus becoming overnight poster boys for the consummate athleticism of horses and jockeys.

At the same time, racing was once again exposed to the broader public as an unpredictable, barroom brawl of a sport that mixes the hot, rushing blood of both humans and animals. Horses may appear to take a set of pre-programmed cues from their jockeys, but in the end they listen mostly to their deepest primal instincts of fear, flight, and pain, while jockeys operate under the psychologically debilitating need to both win and survive, sometimes mutually exclusive endeavors.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, jockeys tend to be self-regulating, just as most drivers obey the rules of the road. The best riders are usually the safest riders as well, and their example trickles down to young jockeys on the rise. When a veteran takes a chance, it is usually a chance calculated on years of experience, thousands of rides, and thorough familiarity with his mount, the course and the opposition.

"You'd be surprised what some jockeys will do, though, even the experienced ones," said Darrell McHargue, a California steward, whose 2,553 winners as a rider included the 1975 Preakness aboard Master Derby.

Stewards like McHargue must deal daily with judgments of cause and effect. Scrappy T's swerve caused Afleet Alex to stumble. But what caused Scrappy T to swerve? Many knowledgeable observers looked no further than Dominguez, his dangling reins and his exaggerated use of the left-handed whip.

"In his defense, it was in the heat of the moment, the adrenalin's flowing, you're coming into the stretch and you've got horse . . . but I'm still baffled by what he did," said Gary Stevens, who rode Noble Causeway in the Preakness. "The windup he took with the whip - that right there was excessive."

If nothing else, the Pimlico stewards bring a certain amount of experience to the table. Burke is a former trainer who, in his words, "galloped thousands of horses" during his career, while Passmore (29,409 rides, 3,531 wins) and Phil Grove (26,901 rides, 3,991 wins) had long careers in the saddle.

"I know there is somewhat of a hew and cry that Ramon should be punished for his action," Burke said. "But honestly, I can't find an action for him to be penalized for. We see him a lot. He winds up every now and then when he's trying to get something out of a horse, and he gives them a fairly good whack. That is his style. It was not anything unusual for him. But you could hit a hundred horses left-handed right there and perhaps 99 of them would go straight. That one didn't."

The elephant in the room, of course, is the big what if. What if Afleet Alex had fallen? Would the stewards' non-action have been the same?

"As stewards, we have to treat everybody and every race the same," Burke said. "No matter what happened or might have happened, we feel what he did was not anything unusual in the riding of a race. Unfortunately, the horse's reaction was."

There you have it. If they are worth anything at all, stewards can't be punishing riders for reasons of public relations, or simply because something "looked bad" to millions of viewers who might see maybe three televised races a year. On the other hand, they should be both obligated and empowered to enforce unbending principals of good horsemanship.

Dominguez is a national champion and a class act who probably would have taken a set of days without a peep and still praised providence that there were no casualties. In the end, the fact that Pimlico's stewards could not find case precedent for action against Dominguez was small consolation to those still haunted by images of what might have been.

"If Jeremy goes down and Afleet Alex goes down, there was going to be about nine of us go down along with them," Stevens said. "My vision was obscured because I was following Mike" - Mike Smith, on Giacomo - "and he had horse. He was following Afleet Alex, and there were horses all around us. My guess is, maybe three horses would have finished the race.

"I think the stewards sent a poor message," Stevens added. "Ramon was obviously reacting to something - but it was a poor reaction. One that could have caused a major catastrophe. If that had been me, I would have fully expected to be penalized."

The real message is loud and uncomfortably clear. There was nothing in the rules or guidelines used by Pimlico's stewards that holds anyone accountable for what happened in the Preakness. But there should be.