02/27/2014 3:03PM

Steven Crist: Stewards' standards need reviewing

Tom Keyser
Strategic Keeper (left) and Collinito were involved in a bumping incident that resulted in the disqualification of Collinito and an extremely bad beat for one Rainbow Six player at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22.

When the Gulfstream Park stewards disqualified Collinito from first place in last Saturday’s 12th and final race, prompting another carryover in the track’s Rainbow Six wager instead of a $1.6 million payout to a bettor with the lone live ticket to the original winner, Internet forums and social-media feeds went ablaze with allegations of injustice and chicanery. Nearly a week later, it remains a dominant topic in the sport.

The decision to take down Collinito, for bothering runner-up Strategic Keeper down the stretch, was arguable but reasonable. It was not a phantom foul, and Strategic Keeper  fell short by just a neck after apparently being bothered twice by the winner. The takedown would have attracted little attention had it not been for the unusual circumstance of the lone live Rainbow Six ticket. The allegations of perfidy, and the whole idea of track management criminally conspiring with the game’s judges to create a carryover for financial gain, were outrageously unfair and completely unsubstantiated.

Nevertheless, the incident has started a useful conversation, if not the one that began with whether this particular call was a fair and honest one. The anger of so many customers, rightly or wrongly, is itself an indictment of the status quo.

Officiating, and the explanation of stewards’ decisions, is one of those corners of the racing game that is largely unexplored and has not been upgraded in decades. Racing was once way ahead of other professional sports in trying to get it right, using the photo-finish camera and replays of race footage from patrol cameras decades before the major sports caught up with instant-replay review. 

They have quickly shot past racing, however, using superior video technology that makes it stunningly clear whether someone has launched a jump shot before or after the shot clock has expired and whether a receiver’s feet were in bounds when he caught a pass. More importantly, those sports have thought out procedures and protocols for reviewing and announcing their decisions. Stubborn fans will still ignore the evidence and claim the fix was in, but at least these sports give the impression they are doing everything possible to get the calls right.

Racing, on the other hand, seems imperious and high-handed by comparison. The public stands around waiting for a decision that could take one minute or a dozen, not knowing what the stewards are watching or talking about. Eventually a judgment is issued, in the form of a couple of terse and stilted sentences that explain little and satisfy few. It conveys a defensive and dismissive attitude and a lack of seriousness – mirrored in the (mercifully brief) decision by some New York tracks a few years ago to precede stewards’ rulings on track monitors with a cartoon graphic of a robed judge hitting a horse on the head with a gavel. All that was missing was a whimsical tuba or wah-wah-wah sound effect to rub it in a little more.

There is no reason for stewards to continue to be unseen and unaccountable rulers from on high. As others have suggested, instead of operating like secret tribunals, they should instead go on closed-circuit television and explain their rulings when they change the original order of finish in a race.

Disenfranchised bettors will still be unhappy if the call goes against them, and the tinfoil-hat crowd will continue to call them crooks, but the process would make customers feel that the proprietors understand that nothing is more serious or important than treating this part of the game with seriousness and respect.

That kind of accountability will have other benefits. Requiring a full and plain-English explanation for a disqualification will reinforce that the order of finish in a race should only be changed when it clearly affected the outcome of a race. There is always going to be judgment involved, but there has to be a standard of reasonableness differentiating a finish-altering foul from a technical violation of something as vague as “keeping a straight course.”

Disqualifications also should never be used as a punitive tool for a kind of race-riding the stewards wish to discourage. That’s what fines, suspensions, and morning-after film reviews with the jockeys are for. You don’t need to redistribute public money unfairly to discipline riders.

The opportunity is there for some track to pioneer new best practices for disqualifications and how they are communicated and explained to the public. Here’s hoping someone takes the lead, and soon.