07/17/2002 12:00AM

Stewards can't be fortune tellers


PHILADELPHIA -Were you ever in a conversation where everybody knew exactly what was being said with one notable exception: You?

That was me after the running of the Churchill Downs Handicap on Derby Day. The horses had barely crossed the wire when several sharp people said that Snow Ridge was about to be disqualified from first and placed second.

The horse had been heroic, fighting through a hotly contested pace and absurdly fast fractions. And when D'wildcat made a huge run at Snow Ridge in the stretch, Snow Ridge dug in and won by a head. Snow Ridge had never changed course. Neither had D'wildcat. There did not appear to be any foul.

What had I missed? The replay showed it. Mike Smith, riding Snow Ridge hard to the wire, had inadvertently hit D'wildcat in the face with his whip several times as the horses neared the wire. You could clearly see the horse's head jerk when hit by the whip.

One could debate it, but it seemed fairly obvious that Snow Ridge was going to hold on anyway. The incident happened close to the wire. D'wildcat was never going to go by.

Still, I was being told the DQ was a foregone conclusion. Whenever a jockey hits another horse with his whip, that's it. It's over. Sure enough, Snow Ridge was DQ'd to second and D'wildcat was made the winner.

So, that was that. You learn something every day.

Only that wasn't it. Smith and Snow Ridge's trainer Wayne Lukas were both bewildered by the DQ. Here's why.

In New York, Snow Ridge almost certainly would not have been disqualified. In Kentucky, the rules covering objections are so vague that they are open to just about any interpretation. And the stewards in the booth that day decided they were going to DQ Snow Ridge. Would they have made the same call the day before or the day after? Who knows? They clearly could have made any call they wanted to make.

Here's the deal. The Snow Ridge incident is covered under the Rules and Regulations of the State of New York, Chapter 1, Subchapter A: State Racing Commission Thoroughbred Rules, Section 4035.2, d. "If a jockey willfully strikes another horse or jockey . . . his horse is disqualified."

The key word here is "willfully." Without fear of contradiction, I can say after watching that replay there is no chance Smith "willfully" struck D'wildcat. He was just doing his job, trying to win the race.

There apparently is no specific rule to govern this situation in Kentucky. Under the Kentucky Racing Commission Rules and Regulations, Thoroughbred Racing, Section 017 covers objections and complaints. Section 4 (Final Determination of Objections to Acts in Race) is as specific as it gets: "The stewards shall make all findings of fact as to all matters occurring during and incident to the running of the race; shall determine all objections and inquiries based on interference by a horse, improper course run by a horse, foul riding by a jockey and all other matters occurring during and incident to the running of a race."

What I think that means is that they can do anything they want. Specifics appear to be irrelevant.

Which brings me right back to my get-rid-of-the-stewards column from last summer. The rules governing the running of races differ from state to state. The fans have no idea what to expect. Neither do the participants. Anybody know your state's rules?

Could you imagine if NBA rules in Los Angeles were different from Philadelphia? The public would not accept it.

I have no doubt that many of America's stewards are fine human beings who try very hard to do the right thing. I do not want them fired. They can continue adjudicating all the myriad issues that confront them on a daily basis.

Just take a hike during the races. First horse to the wire wins. If someone wants to take a look later and suspend jockeys who intentionally commit fouls, be my guest.

There is no way any human can tell with absolute certainty what would have happened in a race if some sort of incident had not occurred. That is apparently what many stewards, lacking specific rules to cover various situations, are trying to do - predict what would have happened, figure out where horses would have finished. It's an impossible burden. And it's nowhere in any rule I could find that stewards are supposed to be in the prediction business.

For some unknown reason, the vast majority in horse racing seem to accept stewards' race rulings as if they are made from on high, when in fact the rulings are made just because they have to be. My final question is simple. Why?