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Hovdey: Keeping a straight line with horses and rulings
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 ...”
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.”
It might be simpler if we didn't have so many examples of horses who overcame bad race incidents, being interfered with at the top of the stretch, horses running into other horses and still the impeded horse continued on to win. As much as I didn't like letting the results stand in the Breeders' Cup, I came down on the side of the ruling because in the final analysis, as the stewards stated, the stewards should not be in the position of handicapping the race. Think of some of the greatest examples of interference or stumbling starts, that left the impeded horse to have to recover and then go on to win: Afleet Alex, 2005 Preakness when he went to his knees at the top of the stretch when Scrappy T blew the turn; Alysheba, 1987 KY Derby, a very rough trip and near fall and bumped by Bet Twice; Rags To Riches stumble out of the gate 2007 Belmont (no interference, but a huge deficit nonetheless to start such an important race giving lengths to the rest of the field); one of the most spectacular stumbles coming out of the gate was Disposablepleasure in the 2011 Demoiselle when she went to her knees, recovered and went on to win the race. There are many others, so it is impossible to state with certainty that any of the horses in the 2014 Breeders Cup Classic had their chances diminished because of what happened at the start of the race. In some cases, it would not have mattered at all, and in others, perhaps it did. But because horses have overcome these and worse situations, no one can say with certainty that the race would have turned out any other way. The best example of why this is so is that California Chrome (my favorite) had the perfect trip, and he still could not catch Bayern, at least on that day. So there is nothing to support taking down Bayern, which would have resulted in having to take down Toast of New York because he in turn impeded Shared Belief, and elevating California Chrome. While the Classic non-action taken by the Stewards was distasteful, carrying the DQ to its ultimate conclusion would have been equally distasteful. I am not saying that some criticism of stewards' decisions is not justified. Their rulings can and should be scrutinized for consistency and fairness. The decision at Gulfstream in my mind was highly questionable, especially so if there are other examples of a different ruling in similar circumstances that can be cited. They should be held accountable and have to answer whenever their consistency and fairness are called in to question. In extreme cases of bias and prejudice, if they can be proven, the decision should be reversed, even if it is after the fact.
Well you and your colleagues should keep the pressure on since you guys do write for the paper of record for this I well give you kudos also deserving.of this is Mike Watchmaker but your have others who write.for this publication who would rather write puff pieces for dirty trainers whether it be for friendship or under the table payoffs.
Let's see.....Baffert/Bayern......Pletcher/It'sAKnockOut....anyone see a pattern here? Dear God, did Upstart fart in Pletcher's horses face or what? I guess that the BIG races are only there anymore just for us small fries to watch. No sense in wasting my bettin'bucks on the King and His Horses. Seems more each day that Dutrow was a scapegoat, and most of the corruption is At The Top of the Racing Community. Here's hope that the "handle" dwindles on the big races and the little guy wises up....
I share the belief that Bayern did win the race and the interference did not affect his running style, Shared Belief could not keep up on that day. Now the inaugural Breeders Cup where Winning Colors was taken down was an injustice to the owner and the jockey and the betting public that had her to win, place or show.
Blatant Interference that takes away any chance of winning at any point in the race for another runner(s) should be a DQ. That should be first and foremost in the rules for the Stewards. It that box is checked, than the silly rules that California use are secondary. Real simple.
I studied to be a steward years back when certification went into effect...The BC was a terrible call winner should have been put behind SB
my god these stewards are not only blind they are stupid as well..!!. Steve Benetos comments are exhibit A...basically he said let the jockeys do whatever they want, were lucky that there's not more mayhem .and why change and improve anything..typical.
Great article. Why don't we just go back to a rope and dropping a flag at the start?
An apologists view for the industry.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME