08/08/2005 12:00AM

Stewards find themselves on the hot seat

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Horsephotos
Tucked Away (right) finishes first in Sunday's Clement L. Hirsch Handicap. She would have to survive a stewards' inquiry before getting the victory.

DEL MAR, Calif. - A series of controversial decisions at Del Mar this summer has left the board of stewards under increased scrutiny, jockeys confused about what to expect when races are reviewed, and the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board defending the stewards.

The stewards' decisions have been widely discussed since the meeting began on July 20. Sunday, stewards Dennis Nevin, Kim Sawyer, and George Slender reviewed three objections from jockeys, but did not change the order of finish in any of those races.

Through Sunday, the stewards had made six disqualifications since the meeting began. They conducted nine inquiries, resulting in five disqualifications, and reviewed 14 objections, resulting in one disqualification.

The most controversial decisions have been the demotion of Sarafan from first to second for causing late interference in the Escondido Handicap on Aug. 3, the disqualification of Sunshine Dreamer from first to second for a bumping incident in the stretch on opening day, and letting the result stand in Sunday's .

After the Hirsch, the stewards took eight minutes to reject a claim of foul from jockey Tyler Baze, who argued that his mount, Muir Beach, was forced to check because of interference caused by winner Tucked Away. The stewards ruled that Star Parade had drifted to the outside in early stretch, causing a chain reaction that led to Tucked Away, the 6-horse, also drifting out.

"We felt [Star Parade] started it," Slender said. "The 6 shifted out and away from her, and I think the 6 overreacted. It would have been hard to take the 6 down."

The length of the review for Sunday's Hirsch gave bettors and observers plenty of time to guess what the stewards would do. Lately, in the opinion of some jockeys, that has been as difficult as handicapping some of the races.

"The jockeys are confused and don't know what we can do," said one rider, who requested anonymity. "One guy barely brushes a horse and they take him down and other guy [almost] knocks someone down, and they don't take you down. We don't understand. We just want the same strike zone."

One rider said a group of jockeys has met with the stewards to discuss the inquiries, but declined to offer specifics on the discussion.

With large fields and sizable prize money at the meet, the stewards say the number of inquiries and objections is not surprising.

"You see very competitive riding and they're trying to get the money," Nevin said.

This season marks the first time that the three stewards have worked together. Sawyer is working her first meeting in California, having previously been based in Ohio. Slender has been a mainstay at Southern California Thoroughbred tracks for the last decade, while Nevin has primarily worked in northern California with occasional assignments in Southern California.

Sawyer said the amount of "over-aggressive riding" has caught her by surprise.

"There is a lot of action," Sawyer said. "I didn't think it would be this much, but everywhere you go you run into the same scenario."

Even though she is a newcomer to the circuit, Sawyer insists that her voice is heard when the stewards discuss objections and inquiries.

"I don't think I've been shortchanged," she said. "It's a three-team effort."

She said the stewards have received feedback on their decisions, including criticism.

"We've got a lot of e-mails," she said. "If you take one down, there will always be someone that is upset that bet on another horse."

John Harris, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, has been present for most of the meeting. He, too, says he has been subjected to many opinions regarding the stewards.

"You hear a lot of chatter," Harris said Monday on the backstretch. "I've looked at a few of the calls and they're okay.

"I think there might be a lot of close incidents. You've got big fields in every race, and the jockeys are very competitive, and that will lead to inquiries. It is tough. It's a close call. It's not like football where the guy is inside or outside."

Futurity next for Stevie Wonderboy

Stevie Wonderboy is bound for the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7 after winning a maiden race on Saturday. The victory arrived at an ideal time for trainer Doug O'Neill.

O'Neill was in the midst of a 1-for-33 slump before Stevie Wonderboy lived up to his role as the 2-5 favorite.

"Those stats will drive you crazy," O'Neill said.

Through Sunday, O'Neill was third in the trainers' standings with eight victories, two fewer than leader Jeff Mullins.

Stevie Wonderboy was considered for Sunday's Best Pal Stakes before O'Neill and owner Merv Griffin opted for the maiden race. Stevie Wonderboy was third early, took the lead on the turn, and pulled clear to win by four lengths, running 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.20.

Stevie Wonderboy was third in the Grade 2 Hollywood Juvenile Championship on July 16, finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind What a Song.

The Grade 2 Futurity is run over seven furlongs and has been a goal of O'Neill and Griffin's for Stevie Wonderboy.

"You hate to jump too far ahead, but it was a good prep," O'Neill said. "The timing is perfect."

Lab delay hinders Five Nickles

Five Nickels, who was stakes placed at Hollywood Park in 2004, was omitted from the entries for Wednesday's Osunitas Handicap because she had not been cleared from the vet's list by the time entries were taken on Sunday.

Five Nickels, trained by Beau Greely, was placed on a 10-day vet's list after being scratched at Hollywood Park on July 13 for unsoundness, according to track stewards. To be removed from the list, she had to work five furlongs under the supervision of a state vet and pass a post-workout drug test.

The workout occurred at Santa Anita on Aug. 3 and was observed by state veterinarian Bob Guillen, but the bloodwork was not completed before Sunday's entries, according to state veterinarian B. William Bell.

Since Guillen is based at Los Alamitos and there is no racing at Santa Anita, the blood sample was sent to the lab on Friday morning, along with a batch of samples taken during racing at Los Alamitos on Thursday.

With no lab technicians conducting tests over the weekend, the test was not scheduled to be finished until Monday.

The circumstances angered Greely, who thought he allowed ample time for the test to be completed. He said Five Nickels will be pointed for an allowance race at Del Mar on Sunday.

Import wins debut for Frankel barn

Trainer Bobby Frankel has a depleted stable in Southern California at this time of year - the majority of his top horses are based at Saratoga - but he did win a $64,400 allowance race on Saturday with the promising French import Art Moderne.

Ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, Art Moderne won his U.S. debut by a length, finishing 1 1/16 miles on turf in 1:40.40. The win was not easy. Art Moderne was rank for the first half of the race. He led throughout and held off a late run from Much Faster.

"He doesn't have a very good mouth," Valenzuela said. "I kept trying to get him to relax and finish. I asked him at the quarter pole and he really responded."

Owned by Wildenstein Stable, Art Moderne has won 2 of 11 starts and placed second and third in group stakes in France.

De Seroux fined for steroid

Trainer Laura de Seroux has been fined $500 by track stewards after two of her runners at Hollywood Park tested positive for the steroid trenbolone.

The drug was found in postrace tests of Royal Copenhagen, who was second in the Flawlessly Stakes on July 4, and Johnny Red Kerr, the winner of the third race on July 7.

Because trenbolone is classified as a class 4 drug, which makes it a less serious violation than classes 1 through 3, there is no redistribution of the purses.