11/04/2014 2:18PM

Hovdey: Rule book, logic finish up the track in Classic

Debra A. Roma
Bayern, second from left, slams into Shared Belief at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, knocking him sideways. Though the stewards agreed there was an infraction, they declined to take any action.

“Where to begin?” is how host Scott Hazelton commenced the post-Breeders’ Cup telecast on HRTV.

The answer, usually, is “the beginning,” and it was truly a rocky start, awkward and fraught with conflicting images.

Fortunately, the NBC prime time telecast of the Breeders’ Cup Classic survived it’s loopy, schizophrenic opening that targeted lord knows who, during which front man Josh Elliott kept saying “tonight” at five in the afternoon – at least where he was in California – and Jim Rome, principal owner of favored Shared Belief, was referred to as “radio star,” even though he’s been on television for most of the past decade with either ESPN (owned by ABC) or Showtime (CBS). Also, they made fun of Christophe Clement being French, which I guess is okay again.

Telecast order was restored when Elliott tossed the ball to the sure hands of Tom Hammond, Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey, who immediately did his Amazing Kreskin bit with a prerace analysis that will go down as one of the ones.

“When the gates open up it’s almost a certainty that the number four Moreno and number seven Bayern will go out to the lead,” Bailey said, to the accompaniment of jazzy graphics. “And if that doesn’t happen, forget about everything else we’re going to tell you right now.”

Then he bent a spoon … with his mind.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

Hazelton, of course, was not talking about the NBC telecast. He was referring to a topsy-turvy Breeders’ Cup XXXI, during which the semi-shock of another Wayne Lukas longshot was eclipsed not only by a horse bred in Japan, a beauty named Judy, and a red Texas tornado, but also two – deux! – winning jockeys from France not named Peslier.

And yet, the memorable performances of Main Sequence, Lady Eli, Goldencents, Dayatthespa, and Untapable ended up being overshadowed late Saturday afternoon by the start of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, when Bayern took out main rival Shared Belief and eliminated Moreno with a break best described as diagonal.

Once straightened, under a front-running masterpiece by Martin Garcia, Bayern went on to win the Classic over England’s globe-trotting Toast of New York and California’s own California Chrome in a thrilling finish that was as good as equine art can get.

By comparison, the start of the Classic was grafitti on a subway wall. Bayern’s sudden lurch to the left set in motion a scenario that ended in the stewards stand, where Santa Anita’s presiding judges determined that Shared Belief, the most aggrieved party, was not deprived of the placing he was reasonably expected to attain. They did not say what that placing was, but presumably it was no better or worse than fourth, which is where he ended up.

Officials did the admirable performance of Bayern no favors by hiding behind the text of their mushy rule and anno uncing that even though the colt was guilty of interfering with Shared Belief at the start, the order of finish would stand. The proclamation was greeted far and wide by the contemptuous honk of a Scooby-Doo “Hunhh?” Clearly, the days of “a foul is a foul” were long gone, replaced by “a foul is an abstract legal concept mitigated by an unprovable outcome.”

In the wake of the ruling, an avalanche of observations followed, both legitimate and otherwise. Among my favorites were:

“When it comes to holding a straight line, stewards cut jockeys and horses a step or so of slack coming out of the gate.”

This is what you call an unwritten rule, mostly because no racing official in his or her right mind would be caught dead commiting such a rule to print. Essentially, the stewards and racing commissioners who endorse the concept have thrown up their hands in surrender. “The kids are nuts, so we let them run wild for the first couple minutes of recess.” This is no way to run a blood sport with purses and gambling dollars at stake.

HRTV analyst Richard Migliore, who won 4,450 races, put it this way: “If they’re going to give me a step without penalty, if I think I can eliminate the other speed horse I’ll take a step and a half. If they’re going to give me five, I’ll take five and a half.”

“The stewards said that Mike Smith said the start did not affect the outcome of the race.”

Smith, a rider who can pick his way through traffic blindfolded, was clearly bumfuzzled at the turn of events. His interview with the stewards after descending from Shared Belief reflected the litany of a troubled journey, beginning with the roughhouse start, then the check to avoid the veering Toast of New York, then an ongoing wrangle with Moreno who was injured and erratic under Javier Castellano. To the question, “Did the start cost you the race?” Smith apparently answered with a version of, “Hell, the whole race cost me the race.”

Later, in the room, after Smith knelt at his cubicle and gave his daily thanks for his safe return and the safe return of his competitors, he was asked, point blank, “Would what happened in the rest of the race have happened if what happened at the start had not happened?”

“No,” he replied. “Getting turned sideways like that took away any chance I had to have a clean shot at getting any kind of position. Bayern was always going to outbreak me. I knew that. But I wasn’t going to be down in behind horses, taking up off their heels, with that other horse coming over on me.”

“They never take down a horse for something out of the gate, or at least almost never.”

Well then, I guess that makes it okay.

“Anyway, there was plenty of time for Shared Belief to recover.”

Andrew Beyer, in a radio interview with Steve Byk on “At the Races,” suggested that if you looked at a freeze frame of Shared Belief’s position entering the clubhouse turn – sitting sixth on the outside – it would have been pretty much exactly where Smith would have wanted to be under any circumstances.

But a horse race is not a series of static tableaux. The action is continuous, without whistles, and rife with cause and effect. Horseplayers know this, otherwise there would not be so much attention payed to the time of the opening quarter of a race of any length. To scoff at the impact of a bad start – self-inflicted or otherwise – is to deny the very nature of American dirt racing, which is based on speed and position from the drop of the flag.

Everything that happened to Shared Belief in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the fruit of a poison start. It was up to the stewards to determine if that poisoning rose to the level of a disqualification.

“Don’t just blame Bayern. Moreno didn’t break so straight, either.”

Moreno did not break straight because V. E. Day, to his right, broke in his usual, leisurely manner. Such gaps create the appearance of a horse not holding a proper line, but in fact Moreno came over only half a path before he was rudely greeted by Shared Belief turned kittywampus by Bayern.

Joe Talamo, on V. E. Day, had the best view. Asked what he saw in front of him Talamo replied, “Shared Belief, sideways.”

“Bayern was bothered just as badly at the start of the Preakness last May by Ria Antonia, and there was no disqualification.”

Well, besides the fact that Ria Antonia ended up finishing behind Bayern (they were last and next-to-last), Bayern caused his own trouble that day when he stumbled at the break. Ria Antonia was guilty of nothing more than leaning into the vacated space to her left. Bayern recovered to establish a position between horses, but the squeeze was on, and he never saw the lead. End of story.

American horse racing is a tough, unforgiving enterprise that pretends to be highly regulated but in fact accommodates behaviors more closely associated with a Saturday night in Deadwood. For proof, there is the historical evidence from the game’s most famous event offered in support of leaving the Classic result alone:

”The Kentucky Derby has a rough start all the time, and nobody ever gets DQ’ed.”

True, no horse ever has been disqualified from a prominent placing in the Derby because of an incident at the start. In the past 50 years, there have been three winners who could have come under scrutiny, although none of them veered as drastically as did Bayern in the Classic.

In 1989, Sunday Silence dipped left and made contact with Faultless Ensign when Triple Buck, in the gate between them, broke slowly. In 1994, Go for Gin got a bad rap in the official chart, which cited him for ducking out and forcing Tabasco Cat into Brocco, when in fact it was Brocco who hopped at the start and was left cold, while the others merely angled into the space where Brocco should have been.

Then there was Funny Cide, in the 2003 Derby, who angled outward from post five under Jose Santos then did some modest herding of the colt to his right, Offlee Wild. Offlee Wild retreated slightly, shifted to the inside, and ended up finishing 12th, which, by modern rules, is where he was destined to finish anyway.

Later on, Offlee Wild sired Bayern.