02/18/2004 12:00AM

Sorting out a mess illogically

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The first race at Golden Gate Fields on the afternoon of Feb. 5 appeared on paper as the kind of heat that disappears from memory the moment it becomes official. Six $12,500 claimers went three-quarters of a mile for a purse of $11,000. The winner stood to earn $6,050. In today's racing game, that barely covers the bandages.

But when six horses and six riders throw down in battle, and thousands of dead-game horseplayers tee it up at the windows, attention must be paid. There was $100,000 bet in straight pools and exactas, with another 20-grand in daily doubles - in other words, $120,000 that was not dumped into a lottery or shoved through an Indian casino.

And it was a heck of a race. Three runners hit the line as a team, with Here Comes Baby (a grandson of Mr. Prospector) finishing a nose in front of Pronto One (a grandson of Rahy), who in turn was a nose in front of Talara (a grandson of Storm Cat).

An inquiry ensued, and when the verdict was reached, it was announced that Here Comes Baby had been disqualified for interference with Pronto One and placed second, with Pronto One elevated to first. Furthermore, it was announced that Pronto One had been disqualified for interference with Talara and placed third, with Talara elevated to second and Here Comes Baby elevated to first.

New order of finish, after the two disqualifications: Here Comes Baby, Talara, Pronto One.

We shall pause now while the congregation shifts in their seats and weighs the meaning of today's message: In California, you can be disqualified after finishing first and still win the race. Is this a great state or what?

In explaining the process by which they arrived at their decision, stewards Darrell McHargue, Dennis Nevin, and John Herbuveaux said they judged the two incidents separately, going by the order in which they occurred. The Here Comes Baby-Pronto One incident came first, then the one involving Pronto One and Talara. The fact that Here Comes Baby ended up where he started - in first place and ahead of the horse he fouled - was an unavoidable byproduct of the process.

Down on the ground, Jedd Josephson was scratching a hole in his head. As the trainer of Talara, he was looking at a dream scenario of two DQs in front of his hard luck horse and thought he might stumble into a win. When the final order was announced, and Josephson's jaw dropped, a friend urged him to launch a protest. But Josephson was correctly told by the stewards that decisions concerning the disqualification of a horse due to a foul could not be appealed. So says California Horse Racing Board rule No. 1761(a).

Rule No. 1543, however, gives stewards the mandate to determine disqualifications and fouls, and "place the offending horse behind such other horses as in their judgment were interfered with . . . "

In effect, the Golden Gate stewards "reversed" their own decision before making the race official. Their first and honorable intention was that Pronto One be elevated above the offending Here Comes Baby. In the end, Here Comes Baby retained the win and only Pronto One lost a placing. The stewards said it couldn't be helped.

Or could it? The sticking point is the stewards' choice to judge the incidents in chronological order, although there is nothing in the rulebook that requires such a procedure. Just for kicks, try it the other way, judging the foul closest to the finish before the foul in midstretch.

Talara would have been elevated over Pronto One, from third to second, then Here Comes Baby would have been placed behind Pronto One, dropping from first to third. The resulting order of finish - Talara, Pronto One, Here Comes Baby - would have reflected the stewards' intentions of penalizing both Here Comes Baby and Pronto One, and placing them behind the horses they fouled.

California's owners and trainers lost their right to appeal judgment calls after the prolonged cases involving disqualifications in the 1990 Del Mar Derby and the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap. After those agonizing ventures into the legal world, the racing board lost all taste for such ordeals. The board eliminated the right of appeals of all judgment calls, making it sound at the time as if it was a vote of support of beleaguered racetrack stewards.

Instead, it has had a cynically chilling effect. The appeal process, though sometimes abused, might have served as a healthy release for the pent-up steam created by razor-thin judgment calls. Many in the sport feel that there is nothing inherently wrong, or damaging to the integrity of the game, for stewards to be required to justify their rulings in open hearings from time to time, as long as the standards for reversal are high.

The decisions made in the first race on Feb. 5 at Golden Gate race will be reviewed, as is the practice, by the executive staff of the CHRB. In a perfect world, there should be a way to make sure that the actions of the stewards consistently agree with the spirit of the disqualification process. But is it a perfect world? Well, that's a judgment call.