09/10/2010 1:43PM

Stewards often choose to see no evil


The ruling by the Del Mar board of stewards that left Twirling Candy the winner of last Sunday’s Del Mar Derby continues to rub some racing fans raw.

The prevailing theme among those most highly critical of the non-DQ bangs away at the idea that “a foul is a foul” and that any exception to such a standard erodes the integrity of the game, if not Western civilization itself. It helps, in making this case, that Twirling Candy’s transgression was of the not-so-subtle variety, and that no one in his or her right mind would disagree that Summer Movie, the colt to his outside, suffered interference.

The issue becomes the interpretation of the racing rules under which California officials operate, which allow for acres of gray area and, when it comes to deciding if interference should be penalized, more room for improvisation than a Thelonius Monk solo.

One horseplayer, writing to Art Wilson’s Pasadena Star-News blog, flatly insisted, “In the old days Twirling Candy would have been DQ’d with no hesitation.”

Maybe, or maybe not. The idea that stewards in those fine “old days” were unflinching wise men dispensing black and white justice is pretty much a bunch of hooey, right up there with the myth that horses once raced in a pristine world fueled by hay, oats, and water.

In fact, there have been nothing but judgment calls down through the ages, some easier than others, but many that have true fans scratching their heads to this day. Raised to respect authority, I was encouraged to learn that there were consequences for chaotic behavior on the racetrack. But then came the 1968 Santa Margarita Handicap, topped by the entry of Gamely and Princessnesian, and I found out about the fine print.

Gamely moved first for Manny Ycaza, but by the time they hit the eighth pole Laffit Pincay had Princessnesian in a drive. The Daily Racing Form chart notes that Gamely “went to bearing out and barely held her stablemate safe,” while Princessnesian was “intimidated by the winner,” which was true.

So there – a foul was a foul, and Princessnesian rightfully should have been hailed the winner of the Santa Margarita. However, since the two fillies were coupled in the betting, the stewards let the result stand, figuring there would be no impact upon their common owner and trainer, or for that matter the horseplayers. Never mind that Gamely went on to be voted champion older filly or mare that year, based at least in part on having the Santa Margarita in her column.

With the possible exception of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, when run with 14 horses around two turns, there is no rougher race run in America than the Kentucky Derby. It is therefore more than slightly unbelievable that there has never in its 136 runnings (many of them earning rodeo status) been the disqualification of a winner.

If ever a horse deserved it, though, it was Seattle Slew. Treat yourself sometime to a YouTube replay of the 1977 Derby, in which the unbeaten colt, odds-on in the betting, broke flat-footed and dawdled anxiously behind a wall of horses before Jean Cruguet hit the gas.

Bill Leggett, reporting in Sports Illustrated, described the sight of Seattle Slew “... bulling his way between horses, even knocking Bob’s Dusty aside in his eagerness.” The merciless Racing Form chart comments paint a picture of a horse and rider who were not going to let anything stand in the way:

“Seattle Slew swerved sharply to the outside into Get the Axe, after failing to break sharply, was rushed to the leaders early placing Sir Sir in slightly close quarters ... forced his was through moving Flag Officer, Affiliate, and Bob’s Dusty out.”

He was also much the best.

The most famous non-DQ, as every schoolchild knows, came in the 1980 Preakness, when Codex and Angel Cordero floated Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk wide at a key point turning into the stretch before going on to win by nearly five lengths. The non-ruling had to survive a Maryland Racing Commission investigation before the original result was declared official.

My favorite Cordero moment, however, occurred in the 1983 Marlboro Cup, when he was riding Slew o’ Gold, and, in a more spiritual sense, Bates Motel as well.

Slew o’ Gold was in control of the race entering the distant turn at Belmont Park. As the leader rounded the final bend, Cordero glanced over his left shoulder and saw Bates Motel, odds-on and ridden by Chris McCarron, making steady progress in Slew o’ Gold’s wake. In a move similar to the Preakness, Cordero allowed his colt to fatten the turn, requiring Bates Motel to drift along for the ride. Then, once straightened away, Cordero let his colt drift once more to the right.

While all this was happening, Highland Blade and Jacinto Vasquez were availing themselves of clear running along the inside. Slew o’ Gold narrowly outgamed Bates Motel in their personal battle, but Highland Blade stole the show to win by a neck. And while it could be argued that those strict New York stewards should have DQed Cordero for his tactics that probably cost Bates Motel, perhaps they felt losing the race after shooting himself in the foot by forfeiting all that ground was penalty enough.

In this household, the non-disqualification that tends to resonate louder than the others involved the missus, Julie Krone, and that li’l feller Bill Shoemaker, who were thrown together in a match race at Canterbury Downs in October 1988.

There was not a whole lot at stake other than publicity, pride, and a $30,000 purse. There was also betting on the event, which put the stewards in play. But what could happen in a two-horse race? Plenty, as it turned out. The two jockeys – neither one tipping the scale at 100 pounds – ding-donged around the Canterbury turf until they hit the wire as a team, with Krone winning narrowly.

“Julie came out two, three, maybe four times into Shoe in the stretch,” said Tom Knust, then racing secretary at the Minnesota track. “When he came back, the stewards were ready to put up the inquiry if he wanted to claim foul. He told them, ‘She didn’t foul me, she just outrode me.’ So they let it stand.”