12/02/2005 1:00AM

Sometimes, no one wins

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is a sure sign that a sport is going weak in the knees when the officiating becomes the center of attention, and it is happening in Southern California, where the townsfolk are getting close to lighting torches and storming the castle.

The latest chapter took place last weekend at Hollywood Park, where the promising Bob and John, a son of Seeking the Gold, was disqualified from his six-length victory in the Real Quiet Stakes for bearing in and interfering with Kissin Knight, the eventual third-place finisher.

The decision stirred the emotions and hit pockets hard, since Bob and John was 1-5 in the betting. Still, in historical terms, it must take a place in line behind such watershed DQ's as the 1971 Woodward Stakes, in which Cougar II dipped left in the stretch and was disqualified to third after winning by five, and the 1967 Jersey Derby, when Dr. Fager won by 6 1/2 only to be placed last in the four-horse field.

Cougar, a tempestuous Chilean, was notorious for giving his riders fits. Bill Shoemaker, aboard Cougar for most of his greatest victories, once said that the only time he lost sleep was the night before he was riding Cougar.

Dr. Fager, on the other hand, was a rocket ship. A rider's only real challenge was keeping him on the ground. Watching him disqualified after his Jersey Derby cakewalk was a traumatic experience for at least one young fan, who until that time was under the innocent impression that jockeys never made such bonehead mistakes.

"It was pretty simple," said Earlie Fires, the 58-year-old Hall of Famer who was elevated to the Jersey Derby win aboard In Reality. "Manny Ycaza rode Dr. Fager. He was crowding us all into the first turn, and he ended up bouncing the inside horse off the fence."

That was Gallant Moment, under Ray Broussard, who was beaten 40 lengths.

"Manny's really a nice guy, but he'd sometimes take it a step too far," Fires said. "All he had to do was let Dr. Fager run another couple of jumps and he was going to be in the clear, on the fence or wherever he wanted to be. But he was just one of those jocks who liked to ride a little tighter, for no reason at all. I'm not criticizing him for it. But he did end up costing his horse a race he should have won."

Those who have parsed the videotape of the Real Quiet Stakes stretch incident see it one of two ways. Either (a) Victor Espinoza was guilty of allowing Bob and John to drift left before he was in the clear, forcing Pat Valenzuela to check Kissin Knight, or (b) Valenzuela executed a subtle shift to his right just in time to place Kissin Knight on the heels of the slightly drifting Bob and John, in hopes that the stewards would hold the horse in front responsible.

When Kissin Knight ended up losing second place by only a nose to runner-up Genre, the stewards were trapped by their long-established mandate to disqualify any horse who costs another horse a purse placing. Had Kissin Knight managed to finish second, there would have been no disqualification. Or so the thinking goes.

In the end it was a judgment call, and the judges decided that Bob and John not only interfered with Kissin Knight, but that he also cost Kissin Knight second money.

Or did he? Certainly, if the only thing that happened in an otherwise cleanly run race was the incident nearing the eighth pole, then the stewards needed only to determine if Bob and John was at fault. Head-on replays, however, show Valenzuela packing Bob and John wide around the first turn and down the backstretch, with Kissin Knight losing valuable ground in what appeared to be his rider's intentional effort to compromise the chances of the heavy favorite.

As a byproduct of such tactics, Genre and Martin Pedroza were able to save ground along the inside and eventually win the narrow decision for second. So, did Kissin Knight lose second a little bit at a time as Valenzuela's tactics unfolded, or all at once when Valenzuela took up?

The stewards, in their wisdom, would point out that what happened between Kissin Knight and Bob and John from the start to the stretch was just good old-fashioned race-riding. Valenzuela, a brilliant practitioner of the Ycaza school, is a virtuoso at treading a fine borderline, crossing it only where there are proven blind spots in enforcement, and the California pool of stewards has pretty much gone along for the ride.

Fires did not see the Real Quiet Stakes, but, after 41 years in the saddle, it sounded fairly familiar.

"A guy going in, trying to get over, I'll usually give him the benefit of the doubt," Fires said. "He might be just trying to save ground. But you take a guy leaving the starting gate and then packing horses out, he's only trying to interfere with horses. He's trying to corrupt the race."

The line between race-riding and interference is blurry at best. Unfortunately, one tends to breed the other, and then the contest ends up in the stewards' stand - exactly where it should not be.