02/20/2015 4:15PM

Hovdey: Keeping a straight line with horses and rulings

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At the rate it’s going, the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic could have a longer run than “The Simpsons,” at least in the tightly knit (and tightly wound) Thoroughbred racing community. It has yet to be dubbed with a media-friendly hook – Starting gate-gate? Bayernapalooza? – but give it time. I can guarantee that when the Breeders’ Cup returns to Santa Anita Park in 2016, the 2014 running of the Classic will be revisited with all the prurient enthusiasm of an unsolved celebrity murder case.

Three and a half months after Bayern’s number was left up in the Classic following an agonizing stewards’ inquiry into the action out of the gate that appeared to compromise the early position of at least two key contenders, the California Horse Racing Board spent the better part of an hour Wednesday publicly debating the need for a change in the rules of racing that would ... well, that’s not exactly clear.

Three different revisions to California Racing Rule 1699 were floated that made progressively less sense. Each one of them changed the opening line of the rule from “During the running of the race” to “At the start or during the running of the race,” as if to codify the concept that the start of something is actually part of that something, as in “At birth or during your life ...”

Nuts.

The revisions went on to insert language that defines interference at the start of a race, then adds, “In close calls, the decision of the steward should be weighted in favor of the horse interfered with ...”

The idea that the start of a horse race has not been considered by stewards as part of the race, at least for purposes of interference calls, has been perpetuated by the attitude that the break is an entity separate from the running that follows, and that rulings for infractions that occur shortly after the start have been all over the map.

“I would find a way to increase the penalty on the jockey that creates the problem and not make the outcome of a race dependent on the judgment of the stewards unless it’s absolutely clear,” said CHRB chairman Chuck Winner. “Maybe there is no better rule to be written. But we have a problem with consistency. One of the things this board can do would be to clarify in writing.”

Commissioner Madeline Auerbach suggested that changing the rule was not really necessary, but that the racing board needed to provide support for a philosophy of stewardship that would emphasize the safety of horse and rider.

“I don’t think the language is the problem at all,” Auerbach said. “I think it’s up to the board to set the tone for the way the rules are interpreted.”

Essentially, Auerbach was tiptoeing up to the idea of weaning stewards from the philosophy that their prime directive is the “protection” of the betting public, and that the betting public is best served when the results are left standing in all but the most extreme cases.

At key points in the hearing, both Auerbach and Winner cited races in which horses owned by them were victimized by interference and yet the results of those races stood. As anecdotes, they were topical, but in the context of a board meeting with steward Scott Chaney in the witness chair, they were wildly inappropriate conflicts of interest. Apparently, commissioners have more in common with horseplayers than they’d like to admit.

What was never brought up, though, was the need to give stewards more effective tools for their analysis, including more cameras at key positions around the track and an overhead view of the starting gate.

Commissioner Steve Beneto took special pains to point out how difficult it is for jockeys to control the unpredictable beasts beneath them, and that latitude was appropriate when holding riders and their horses accountable.

“We’re lucky there’s not more wrecks than there is right now,” was Beneto’s dire assessment. “I think the kids are doing the best they can, taking orders from owners and trainers and trying to do a good job. I don’t think we should change anything.”

Beneto has a wealth of experience as a racehorse owner, although he may be hanging around jockeys’ agents too much. His viewpoint, however, was effectively kneecapped by retired rider Darrell Haire, the national field representative of the Jockeys’ Guild.

“One of the first things riders are taught is to keep a straight course out of the starting gate,” Haire said. “Hold jockeys accountable if they don’t.”

The rage that ensued when Bayern’s number stood, despite his leftward initial strides, was fueled by the statement from Santa Anita stewards that the interference at the start of the race did not affect the ultimate outcome, even though it was clear that Shared Belief, the race favorite, was hampered by Bayern’s erratic break. If semantics was the culprit, and the stewards were forced to recite a poorly written run in justifying their decision, commissioner Jesse Choper had a solution.

“If you are looking for consistency, the most direct route is to reduce the discretion of the decision maker,” said Choper, a law professor. “The more hard rules you have, the more consistent you’ll be. The difficulty is, though, you may be wrong if you’ve made a bad rule.”