06/04/2006 11:00PM

Tough call even before the bell

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Gary Stevens is not prone to flashbacks, but he had one in Technicolor last Saturday morning as he sat at home watching the TVG coverage of the Epsom Derby and the horses as they approached the starting gate.

Stevens took particular notice of Kieran Fallon aboard the well-backed Horatio Nelson, and how the jockey seemed to have something on his mind as he put the colt through his prerace warm-up. When Fallon approached what appeared to be a woman in a long, elegant coat and festive Derby hat, everything clicked. The woman was an official racecourse veterinariana, Dr. Jenny Hall.

Stevens, who works for TVG these days, picked up the phone and called the studio, informing his producer that it was highly likely Horatio Nelson was being examined for a possible prerace scratch. Stevens's observations were duly reported by the on-air commentators, who themselves had no direct link to Epsom. A few moments later, Horatio Nelson was loaded in the gate, left cleanly with the field, and then fatally shattered his right foreleg in the final run to the wire.

The incident occurred just two weeks after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke through the Preakness starting gate, reloaded, then seriously fractured his right hind ankle shortly after the race began. In both high-profile cases, there was a brief window of opportunity for an official veterinarian to scratch the horse in question. The fact that neither horse was withdrawn in spite of the circumstances speaks to the imperfect system of judging question-mark horses as raceworthy in the pressure-packed minutes just before the start of a parimutuel event.

Stevens, a retired Hall of Famer who rode extensively in Europe during his career, recalled his most vivid encounter with the issue, which took place in a Group 3 race at San Siro, Italy, in May of 2004.

"My horse bolted with me going down to the start," Stevens said. "He hit his head on a concrete wall. I thought it was unsafe to let him run and told them so. But he was heavily bet, so they got a replacement jockey and left him in the race. He was beaten something like 27 lengths."

Jockeys are faced with such dilemmas on a daily basis. Sometimes they pay a stiff price for exercising their judgment and asking a horse to be scratched, including a loss of subsequent mounts from the trainer and shrill excoriation from the gambling community. Italian racing officials fined and suspended Stevens for refusing to ride the horse who ran into the wall. Stevens noted that the rider has only so much information on which to base what could turn out to be a life-and-death judgment. He pointed out that Fallon was able to confer with trainer Aidan O'Brien at the starting gate before Horatio Nelson was allowed to run, a situation unique to the European sport.

"There have been several times, when I've had a question about maybe scratching a horse, that I'd love to talk to the trainer," Stevens said. "A lot of times, when it was left totally up to me, it was a coin-flip. A filly might not be traveling like she normally does - not bad, but different. What do I do? If I could reach them on a phone, at the gate or wherever, there are trainers who will be honest with you, tell you that maybe she bruised a foot the other day, and it's coming out. If you're not comfortable, let's not run."

Deprived of such input, American jockeys have to go with gut feelings and past experience.

"Obviously, you've got to consider the connections you're riding for," Stevens pointed out. "For example, I rode Golden Pheasant, who did not have the prettiest way of going. But I trusted the fellow who was training him - Charlie Whittingham - and the trust was well founded. I went on to win the Arlington Million and the Japan Cup with him. But if he'd been in anyone else's hands, I might have said, 'I don't want to ride this horse.'

"What bothers me most about this issue is the power of the almighty gambling dollar, and the influence it has on trying to keep a horse in a race," Stevens said. "In California, jockeys have probably the best relationship with track management and the track veterinarians. In my experience, all a jockey has to do is go to the gate and say they don't like the way this horse feels. They'll pretty much immediately withdraw the horse.

"In other jurisdictions I've ridden, if you try and scratch a horse, the first thing they'll try and do is get an alternate jockey," Stevens went on. "I've seen it happen, with top-rank jockeys, where they took the horse back to the paddock and resaddled the horse with the replacement jockey's tack. To me, that's wrong.

"I mean, I've never felt like committing suicide," Stevens added. "And I'd prefer not to play Russian roulette with my life, the life of the horse, or the other riders in the race."

(Next time, the issue of scratching a horse at the gate from the point of view of the racetrack veterinarian.)