04/05/2017 12:40PM

Hovdey: Conspiracy theories of armchair stewards

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A Harris Poll conducted in late 2015 revealed that 33 percent of the 2,252 American adults in the sample named pro football as their favorite sport, while Major League Baseball lagged well behind at 15 percent and college football rounded out the trifecta at 10 percent.

That left 42 percent or so to be divided among the many other sporting endeavors – yes, football fans, there are other sporting endeavors – including auto racing (6 percent), ice hockey (5 percent), men’s soccer (4 percent), and men’s golf (3 percent).

Horse racing registered a 1 percent response as the favored sport among those polled, which left the game down there with men’s tennis and bowling. I see nothing wrong with being mentioned in the same sentence as men’s tennis, a sport of high drama and great fashion. But bowling? Really? Bowling?

Take heart, though, racing fans. Coming in at less than 0.5 percent as the first choice of the poll sample was women’s golf. And after what happened last weekend in a major championship in the California desert, the number might drop from there.

In a nutshell, Lexi Thompson, who was cruising along on the lead in the ANA Inspiration, was assessed a four-shot penalty midway through her final round on Sunday for something she did on Saturday. The infraction – a detail of marking and replacing her ball for a 12-inch putt – was not noticed by Thompson, her playing partner, or the rules official following them. They played on, had a nice meal, and started again the next day.

At some point, however, an anonymous fan at home – no doubt one of the 0.5 percent – lingered over the recording of Saturday’s round long enough to detect Thompson’s goof. He or she sent an e-mail to the LPGA, which encourages fan interaction to help “grow the game.” Officials reviewed the video and agreed that they had missed it, then hit Thompson with a two-stroke penalty for the improper marking and another two strokes for signing a scorecard that did not include the two-stroke penalty that officials failed to assess. Joseph Heller wrote about this in “Catch-22,” if I remember correctly.

Thompson went from two up to two down, rallied to tie So Yeon Ryu, then lost a one-hole playoff for the title. There was no word as to whether or not the anonymous caller bet against Thompson. Yes, there is betting on women’s golf. There is betting on everything.

Horseplayers who heard about the Thompson affair were green with envy. Why can’t racing be more like women’s golf? Imagine the giddy rush each time the gates open, the airwaves filled by thousands of amateur referees with vested interests in the outcome looking over the shoulder of the stewards, encouraged by racing officials to pick apart the smallest details of a contest in search of infractions. Power to the people writ large. Right on.

Golfers are supposed to know the rules well enough to call penalties on themselves, a quaint idea, but fundamental to the game. There is no known record of a jockey dismounting and saying, “Take me down.”

For their part, horseplayers understand that their game is played at high speeds, and almost every action is open to interpretation. They only ask that the interpretations at least have a degree of consistency, that yesterday’s herding will not be winked at today, that the best horse in the race will be taken down only if he caused grievous harm to the chances of another, and that jockeys will be penalized as much as the gamblers.

At some point in the mid-1990s, long before social media became a thing, the California Horse Racing Board established a hot line for racing fans and licensees to call in their complaints and suspicions. They called it … “Hotline.”

“Our investigators hung signs listing the number throughout the backstretches,” recalled Mike Marten, communications director at the CHRB. “I kept track of the calls the first few years, but none of the callers ever gave any details that our investigators could follow up on. They only voiced suspicions.”

They also complain about inquiries, disqualifications, and the treatment of horses. There have been reports of suspected undocumented workers, suspected illegal substances in man and beast, and suspected violations of gambling rules.

“Someone complained that a jockey was showing winning tickets,” Marten said. “This was referred to an investigator, who determined the jockey was not riding that day, so there was no wagering prohibition.”

That’s a relief.

“A caller complained that the pick six paid too little,” Marten added. “That call was referred to me. I explained to the caller that the winners were very logical and all were short prices. The person was not satisfied with the explanation.”

That’s no surprise.

At some point, the Hotline morphed into a combination complaint box and 411 info line. Of the 80 hot-line calls in 2015-16, about half were licensing inquiries.

“We followed up on all suspected rule violations, though no one I’ve spoken with is aware of any prosecutions resulting from any hot-line calls,” Marten said.

In the meantime, racing organizations continue to court fan interaction through social media. No matter what the level of discourse, it’s the hits that count. Twitter has become the medium of choice for second-guessing the stewards, while Facebook offers an unlimited canvas upon which to paint the most ornate conspiracy theories. Racing fans no longer need suffer in silence. They just have to suffer.