Updated on 09/17/2011 10:29AM

Stewards have to take part of blame

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WASHINGTON - Churchill Downs's stewards Monday exonerated jockey Jose Santos after allegations that he carried an illegal electrical device in the Kentucky Derby. But no one can exonerate the stewards. They bear much of the responsibility for the frenzied media reports that a scandal had tarnished America's most famous horse race.

All of the newspaper and television coverage stemmed from an article in The Miami Herald that raised questions about a photograph of Santos aboard Funny Cide. In the photo it appeared that he was carrying a black object in his right hand, next to his whip. This turned out to be an optical illusion. After a forensic expert magnified the photo by a power of 250, he determined that there was no object. There was space between Santos's fingers, and seen in that tiny space were the silks and goggle strap of jockey Jerry Bailey, who was on the horse behind Funny Cide. People who understand the improbability of a top jockey using a battery in the Derby might have expected an explanation like this one.

The Herald article may have been titillating, but it was purely speculative. The nation's media never would not have turned raw speculation into the biggest story of the day, except for a single sentence in the article that quoted steward Rick Leigh: "I've looked at [the photograph], and it looks very suspicious."

This line appeared in almost every newspaper report that followed up on the Herald's story, because Leigh's remark legitimized the presumption that this was a potential scandal. Leigh said at a press conference yesterday that he had not been fully quoted, and that he had gone on to say ". . . however, we need to find additional information."

Bernie Hettel, the chief steward, had offered no comment to most questions as the story broke, but he did tell one reporter: "Santos can say whatever he cares to say. . . . The picture really is worth a million words at this point."

When Hettel appeared before television cameras to announce that an investigation was underway, his grave manner surely gave many viewers the impression that the stewards were investigating a case in which a smoking gun had already been discovered.

With the benefit of hindsight, the stewards should have crafted a public response that addressed the issue but forestalled a premature, unwarranted wave of publicity that tarnished Santos' reputation. Something like this: "We have no evidence whatsoever that Jose Santos might have carried an illegal device except what the photograph appears to show. We know that such a photograph might be deceiving, but we are undertaking an immediate and full investigation to discover the truth."

There are plenty of cynics in the racing world who wonder how the stewards would have responded if the Derby hadn't been won by an outsider - a New York bred gelding with a group of small-time owners. What if Empire Maker had won the Derby and a photo appeared of him looking like the one of Funny Cide. Would the stewards have found "very suspicious" the victory of a horse bred by mighty Juddmonte Farms, near Lexington, and ridden by the iconic Jerry Bailey?

In fact, it is easy to surmise the answer to that question. The 1995 Derby sparked almost as much controversy as this year's race. After the victorious Thunder Gulch crossed the finish line, jockey Gary Stevens appeared to pass an object to rider Pat Day. When viewers watched in slow motion they were convinced they could see something in Stevens's hand. This, too, proved to be an optical illusion, but the visual evidence was at least as persuasive as the still photograph of Santos. Yet when the Churchill stewards were asked if they would investigate, Leigh didn't see any reasons for suspicion. "It's all nonsense, and there's no investigation at all on our part," he declared. "If you know Pat, you've seen him shake hands with riders after the race."

Even most critics of the stewards had to applaud the way they handled the resolution of the case against Santos. Their presentation of the evidence clearing the jockey was thorough and convincing. They distributed blown-up versions of the suspicious photo to show that there was no object in the jockey's hand. They analyzed Santos's actions as shown in NBC's video coverage of the race. They also played a videotape, made by a fan with a camcorder who thought he had caught Santos dropping an object to the ground after the race. The stewards determined it was a dirt clod. It is unlikely that even the most cynical viewer could suspect that this was a whitewash to protect the Derby's good name. Santos was innocent.

Hettel expressed the hope that newspapers and television networks would cover the resolution of the case as prominently as they did the allegations against Santos. Of course, this will never happen. The damage has already been done - damage that the stewards might have been able to prevent.