01/07/2015 12:53PM

Gisser: Consistency needed on horse-kicking issues

Derick Giwner
David Miller was fined $750 for a kicking violation.

l wasn’t going to write about it. l thought it was much adieu about nothing. But when the incident shows up in year-in-review articles, I can’t remain silent. So David Miller kicked a horse. Or he didn’t kick a horse. Everyone had their say, but most people missed the big picture, or big pictures.

It’s happened before and it will happen again. To make any sense of the issue, we need to differentiate between two offenses—kicking vs. foot out of the stirrup, which is totally different and far less severe. We also need to stop selectively enforcing violations of all types but especially these.

Kicking is, and should be, a major violation with a penalty to match—akin to whip misuse or abuse. But foot out of the stirrup is a minor movement that does not hurt the horse, and which probably should not be a violation any more than yelling to excite the horse should be.

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I spent the last few days of December watching the battle between Aaron Merriman and Ronnie Wrenn, Jr.  for the National driving title. Granted, I watched on a computer screen, but I was amazed at the number of drivers whose feet were out of the stirrups during that week. Top drivers, mediocre drivers, and bad drivers all suffering from dangling leg syndrome. Yet, in the last ten days of the year at Northfield there was just one kicking violation call, and NO foot out of the stirrup calls made by the judges. But I saw it happen time and time again! In all of 2014 at Dover Downs, the scene of David Miller’s “crime”, there were six kicks called and just one foot out of the stirrup violation. And that was against Miller. So you can understand his displeasure.

Here’s the bigger problem for me. Everyone I have spoken with—drivers, trainers, journalists, and judges—agrees that kicking is a far more serious offense than foot out of stirrup. Yet Dover fined the four kickers (including two multiple offenders) $200 each last year. David Miller got nailed for $750. Some will argue that Miller committed the offense in a rich race (The Progress Pace). They will justify the penalty using risk/reward terms. Sorry I am not buying that.  The NFL penalty for holding is the same whether it is in the Super Bowl or in a meaningless pre-season contest.   This analogy is very relevant as we will discuss in a minute.

I have a bit of experience with the major difference between foot out of the stirrup and kicking.  I was a part-time publicist at Northfield Park in March of 1999 when management decided to bring in a guy named Walter Case Jr. to revive the track’s fortunes (and Case was worth every penny). He immediately began racking up a ridiculous win percentage. He also began racking up cumulative penalties for foot out of the stirrup infractions that were so prevalent that trainer Craig Stein actually designed a device to force Walter to keep his foot in place. It did not work, although through appeals and other maneuvers he continued to drive with great success at Northfield until other issues intervened. By then I was the full-time Assistant PR Director and Webmaster at the track and spent many racing nights answering fan questions about why he was allowed to continue racing.  I could not answer those inquiries precisely, but it was clear to me that my bosses, the judges, and the Ohio State Racing Commission felt these were minor violations, and while there were an awful lot of them, a major suspension was not in order (Case did accumulate several short suspensions during that time).

When we watch races we see feet out of the stirrups all the time and we are told that is bad for the sport; that the public can’t tell the difference between a kick and a foot hitting a leg. OK. Let’s outlaw removable earplugs, then. Pulling the plugs looks worse than a brush of the hock, yet there is no outcry over this legal removal of the foot, which also provides an opportunity to, ahem, adjust foot position.

In 2002, my first year as a Billings amateur driver, I drove a trotter called YL Face A Face.  He wanted the front but was a “gutless piece of garbage” according to his trainer. We got to the front in :29 and a piece, but by the 1:00 half he was already laboring . Well, he wasn’t really laboring, he just wasn’t trying. A horse pulled alongside us at the half and I tried to pull the plugs once, twice, three times. It looked to the world like I was kicking this trotter trying to relive my days as a former high school soccer player. The problem was simple. I was using Brett Miller’s race bike. Now Brett is just a few inches taller than me, but he is built quite differently.  I could barely reach the stirrups, let alone keep my feet in them.  I actually got e-mails asking why I kicked the horse so much at the half, but I did not commit the crime. I was just trying to pull the plugs. Honest.

I think what’s happening with these calls is simple. Like holding in the NFL, our judges could call foot out of the stirrup in just about every race. So instead of enforcing this violation (and again I am of the belief that it should not even be an infraction) all the time, they call it when it is obvious (as we see in the NFL), or they use the soccer concept of only enforcing the rule when the “player gains an unfair advantage.” That’s the only logical conclusion. At least the only one that does not call our sport’s judges’ competence or motives into question. Now go cash. See you next month.

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