06/10/2003 11:00PM

Fines incentive for riding hard to wire

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I don't know which happens with more regularity, an NBA player remarking on a well-officiated basketball game, or a horseplayer complimenting the stewards on a decision.

Neither takes place often. It is the nature of being an official, hearing people complain and knowing they tend to remember decisions that hindered them more than those that helped them.

Yet there is little dispute that Churchill Downs stewards made the right call this week when they fined five Churchill Downs jockeys. The riders were penalized for not persevering with their mounts in the late stages of races when they were in contention for fourth or fifth place.

The riders - Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, Lonnie Meche, and Jason Lumpkins - tried their best to win. They asked their mounts for run, and put them to the stick.

What they didn't do was ride as vigorously in the final 50 yards as they did in midstretch. Their mounts were beaten and tired, and they didn't tattoo them to be fourth or fifth.

According to the stewards, the fines were made in part to maintain the integrity of the distribution of purses and of the superfecta wager. Purses are paid through fifth place, and the superfecta is a bet that requires the precise order of finish to fourth place.

These Churchill riders aren't alone in not riding out for fourth or fifth place. It happens at many tracks across the country. Even some of the best riders in the game have experienced this problem. Kent Desormeaux was fined and suspended in 1992 for not persevering with his mounts when it seemed they were beaten.

Looking at the races from the perspective of the riders, it is easy to understand why they may coast late when it seems they are defeated. They are fatigued, as are their mounts. That puts them at risk, particularly if their mounts are sore, as some racehorses are.

Naturally, jockeys want to do as well as they can for owners and trainers and themselves, but they are rewarded primarily for finishing among the top three with their mounts. They don't have as much of a financial incentive as superfecta bettors to be fourth or as owners to finish fourth or fifth.

In Kentucky, for example, jockeys get paid the same for finishing fourth as they do for running last. That is true in many jurisdictions, and it is a mistake.

That is in part why I do not regularly play the superfecta. The large payoffs that come with it are appealing, but there is a randomness to the bet. It seems that just about any horse can be fourth in a race, and considering riders aren't rewarded for being fourth, it seems you may as well pick numbers for that final position.

To their credit, Churchill Downs stewards are doing the right thing by requiring their jockeys ride out their mounts for a piece of the purse. Owners and superfecta bettors can hope other tracks follow the example.