12/06/2004 1:00AM

Stewards must stop stumbling


NEW YORK - Thistledown in North Randall, Ohio, 10 miles outside of Cleveland, is not a major racing center. And the last few weeks were probably the only time that the people who have a stake in that track are glad that it's not.

That is because on Nov. 20, the Thistledown stewards disqualified a horse in a decision so egregious that it caused a fan uproar, which led to a rapid reversal of the stewards' ruling, and eventually resulted in a modest fining and brief suspension of the stewards involved.

If this had happened in New York or Los Angeles, this would be a much bigger story. But just because it happened at Thistledown doesn't mean this story should get lost in the shuffle, or isn't important. It is important.

To recap, the race in question was the sixth at Thistledown on Nov. 20, an allowance race in which the 2-5 Slewrenity finished first by 3 1/2 lengths over the 7-1 Lac Grape. After the race, Lyndon Hannigan, the jockey of Lac Grape, claimed foul against the winner, alleging that Julio Felix, the rider of Slewrenity, had struck his mount in the face with the whip in midstretch. Hannigan's foul claim was upheld, and in a race on which nearly $80,000 was wagered, Slewrenity was disqualified from first and placed second behind Lac Grape.

Felix, Slewrenity's jockey, was so upset that he took off his remaining mounts for the day. The connections of Slewrenity almost immediately lodged a protest of the disqualification with the Ohio State Racing Commission. Apparently, they had good reason to be angry. By all accounts, there was no evidence from any video angle taken of the race that Felix's whip had struck Lac Grape across the face. According to reports, and the footnote of the chart, Lac Grape does throw his head in deep stretch. But even the stewards involved - state steward Allen Fairbanks, and association stewards Joel McCullar and Kim Sawyer - had to later admit in writing that Lac Grape's reaction was not the result of being struck by a whip.

Within mere days of the incident, all three stewards admitted they made the wrong call, it was announced they would be punished, and the original order of finish was restored. That was good for the connections of Slewrenity, but too late for the bettors, the majority of whom were hurt by the call, considering Slewrenity was such a prohibitive favorite.

This is not the first time stewards have made a wildly incorrect decision. The most notable example in recent memory was the infamous "Allemeuse incident" at Saratoga in the mid-1980's. After Allemeuse made a wide rally to finish first in an allowance race early on a Saturday card, the stewards posted the inquiry sign, which was justified because opponents well inside of Allemeuse were bumping and fouling each other. But to the shock of everyone, the innocent Allemeuse was the one taken down. The stewards somehow misidentified Allemeuse as the culprit, and not the guilty horse inside of her. By the end of that day, the stewards were forced to admit they made a terrible mistake. As a footnote, by the time racing returned to Saratoga the next summer, all three stewards who were involved in the Allemeuse incident had been replaced.

Okay, Allemeuse was a while ago. But, it seems that the quality of officiating from the stewards' stand at tracks across the country has gone downhill in a hurry. Within a couple of weeks earlier this year, the decision by the stewards at Oaklawn Park to not disqualify Wild Spirit from second in the Apple Blossom Handicap was overturned by the Arkansas Racing Commission, and the disqualification of Rolled Stocking in an optional claimer at Calder Race Course was reversed at an appeal hearing. Both changes came too late for bettors.

There have been other prominent recent examples of questionable stewards' decisions. The disqualification of Icy Atlantic from first in the Lexington Stakes at Belmont Park, the disqualification from first of Powerscourt in the Arlington Million, and the non-call by the stewards in the roughly run Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star Park were all very controversial decisions. There are, of course, many more examples in less prominent races.

Stewards at tracks across the country need to remember that their primary function is to enforce the rules of racing. The decisions they make impact many, such as owners, trainers, jockeys, and track management. But the stewards impact no one more than the bettors. Most of the time, the stewards are the betting public's last line of defense to ensure the integrity of what takes place between the rails. As a bettor, it seems to me that this has been forgotten. So often, stewards make decisions that exhibit such a maddening lack of consistency (a foul yesterday often is not a foul today), or an alarming lack of understanding of how races are actually run, that it seems like any three trip handicappers collected from the grandstand would do a decidedly better job. And, stewards also have to remember that they are paid to not make the kind of mistake the stewards at Thistledown made.

As for the Thistledown stewards, their punishment amounted to this: They each received a three-day suspension and were fined $2,000 each. Nevertheless, according to reports, only $500 of that is due immediately, with the remaining $1,500 held in abeyance until Dec. 31, 2005, when it will be dropped if they don't mess up again. Just that, for taking down a horse for no reason at all. Is that enough?