03/15/2017 9:06PM

Marks: Judges could use a class on handicapping

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Way back when, I stumbled upon one of the judges at a New York track and blurted something about a race that had just transpired. My point of contention was that the winner, after receiving noticeable late money, was aggressively handled by his driver and was along at the wire.

The judge replied, “So?”

The week previous in the same class, the same driver had disdained several opportunities to pull from the rail and wound up getting boxed in until early stretch, upon which he gained early clearance but sat passively with the lines in his hands, finishing in the middle of the pack.

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The judge’s retort to that tidbit of information was that the driver had done nothing wrong in that previous race. In short, there was no interference and no bulling off the rail.

That was his judgment.

I stammered, “But what about the form reversal? Last week’s effort was non-existent but this week with similar opportunity the effort was apparent.”

The man reiterated that there was nothing wrong with this race and that to the best of his recollection, there was nothing abnormal about the race last week.

At that moment, I got it. That was his judgment.  

Nothing unusual happened the week before. There were no interferences, no excessive slowdowns and no traffic mishaps that might prompt the inquiry sign to flash. Thus the race was official.

Understand that I as a chart commentator for DRF Harness patriarch publication Sports Eye had been trained to notice who was aggressive and who perhaps was not. Editorially, I would have commented that this week’s “winner” was visibly urged in the stretch, though the week before I would have said the same horse gained stretch clearance but gained no ground. I would not have written whether or not he could have gained ground if asked to for that represented an opinion not a fact.

However, being a bettor as well, that information would have been filed away, thus when I saw the horse the very next week, I remembered the circumstances of his last start. And at that moment, I realized the problem as it existed.

That particular judge knew the rules of racing as they existed, but may or may not have had what could be considered “advanced handicapper” training or savvy. Therefore, unless there was a flagrant issue during the running of the race, it would be declared official without inquiry. 

The consistency or inconsistency of the horse’s form was not considered unless the reversal was so blatant that it defied belief. That would require a horse who had finished last in every start on the program page in the same class suddenly winning by multiple lengths in that same condition, going five or more seconds faster than ever before. Then that scenario might have called for a summons to the trainer and driver to explain the obvious form improvement, but would not have warranted an inquiry. Thus the public would be oblivious unless it somehow it got reported that “someone” got days for an inconsistent performance.

And therein was the problem.

A substantial portion of the betting population that existed back then were sufficiently savvy to discern inconsistent performances, but grew increasingly frustrated when it appeared management and/or the judges were either oblivious  or just ignored them.

Of course, it must be noted that endless posted inquiries were not the answer as that would impede normal race progression, but violations could have easily been addressed the next morning. However, if they were, they were seldom made public, therefore the impression was that the races were official as they were even though visually a substantial portion of the attending crowd either knew better or perceived they did. And as we all know, perception so often supersedes reality.

In that I’m only occasionally at racetracks nowadays, I have no way of knowing if race judgments are any different today than years ago, though from what I read and hear, it appears not everyone is satisfied with the consistency of those judgments.

I did notice that a “Down Under” driver received a six week suspension for a lack of vigorous exertion upon gaining clearance in early stretch. Apparently the horse had been used early to gain the lead, yielded and did gain clearance in the stretch. The driver’s response was that he heard an abnormal respiratory sound from the horse consistent with choking down, which sounds plausible but it seems the judges didn’t buy it! If nothing else, those that bet on the horse got some satisfaction.

Obviously this is a very complex issue, but in all fairness it would seem that having a skilled handicapper in the Judges booth as sort of a public ombudsman might go a long way in alleviating any concerns bettors might have for what they consider inconsistent judgments. It might not have worked wonders back during the times of what some call the “good ole days,” but it would have aided public perception of judgements.