By William Gotimer
There is no more deflating feeling to a horseplayer than having your horse disqualified. The elation and excitement of a win is quickly followed by concern when an inquiry or objection is announced and then moves to outright dejection when the order of finished is changed to your detriment.
In between there are minutes that seem like hours when the replay of the incident is shown from numerous angles and at different speeds. Each viewing elicits opinions and hopes from those financially involved with some amount of self-deception added in as all try to determine whether a change will be made.
Those of us who have been around awhile remember the days when such replays were not even shown to the public and all gamblers could do was stand looking at a blinking light while the fate of their bet lay in the balance. In those days, there was even a secondary betting market where sharp-eyed observers offered odds on whether a disqualification would occur. It was survival of the fittest where the “sharpies” who viewed the race with knowing eyes took advantage of the “squares” who had nothing but hopes and wishes to back their views.
The pressure of an inquiry is so great that one well-known huge New York gambler who had nerves of steel when placing bets was known to come unglued during a foul claim review. He would run into the men’s room where he would continually flush the toilet so as not to hear the outcome. He would only know his fate when some less neurotic fan would come into the room and blurt it out.
In any era, few things in racing rival disqualifications as breeding grounds for the conspiracy-minded. You will routinely hear, “they will NEVER disqualify this [trainer or owner or rider]”; or with the advent of carryovers “they will (will not) disqualify a longshot or favorite”. I have even heard the conspiracy-minded advocate and weigh opposite conspiracies during the same inquiry. For most experienced horseplayers, there was, however, a belief that we knew what a disqualifying foul was and if we were not financially affected by the outcome we could determine whether a change would be made. That has changed.
While it is hard to identify a precise moment in time when things change, as most things are trends, high profile events tend to pick up notoriety as a delineating moment. In the evolution of disqualifications, the Bayern win in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup is a watershed moment for many. When the Santa Anita stewards declined to disqualify Bayern in such a high-profile race, they unofficially established a new principle whereby virtually nothing happening coming out of the gate is a disqualifying foul. That had not been the case throughout racing history but is virtual dogma everywhere in the United States now.
Similarly, the philosophical search that some jurisdictions now embark upon to determine ”whether the foul cost the victim a placing” has further clouded predictability. Finally, differing approaches to whether “herding” is permissible has made inconsistency in decisions the only thing a bettor can accurately predict. Lack of consistency in these result-altering decisions is by far and away the largest complaint that gamblers have and the frustration they feel is palpable and real.
A New Approach – A National Replay Center
Few titles in sports have historically carried more power than a racetrack steward. In addition to the power to adjudicate foul claims, stewards have the power to suspend or fine racing participants and even have the power to “rule off” individuals and horses.
Historically, stewards are the final arbiters, before legal actions, and they have been responsible for safe riding, proper entrants of horses and the legitimacy of horse claims, to name but a few. They are people of high integrity and experience in the game and responsible for monitoring and disciplining behavior of racing participants both on and off the track. They are indispensable and as their title defines “supervise and keep order” in the sport.
Without denigrating either the talent or integrity of all stewards at large or any individually, I submit it might be time for racing to try a more modern approach where the decisions on inquiries and foul claims are made at a central remote location.
This approach of a sport “command center” has been developed by both the NFL and NBA who each have replay centers at remote locations where the best technology is used and officials benefit by being nameless and faceless to render tough decisions. The on-sight officials are included in the discussion but the ultimate decision rests with the officials at the command center.
The benefit to racing to having a national replay center is two-fold. If one group of officials is making the decisions for the whole country, then, by definition, more uniformity follows. Even if it is simply accomplished out of repeated personal tendencies it does bring about a more uniform result across different tracks. While each track and region may have their own traditions and styles, the modern racing game shares a common pool of gamblers. The gambler who only bets one track or region is now the exception rather than the rule and most bettors now play all parts of the country and many do it all in one day. It is no longer palatable to the gambling community that stewards in one part of the country tend to be more lenient than in others. Racing is a big-time sport and should act like it for the benefit of their customers by fostering uniformity and this one way to do that.
The second less tangible benefit of a national replay center is making such decisions at a remote location. While the stewards are selected for their integrity and I have no question about any of them in that regard, they are still in fact human. Human nature makes it difficult to make decisions and judgments about people you see every day. As on-track attendance dwindles on most days, the racetrack becomes much more of a workplace than a sporting event. By necessity each day the stewards see and know riders, jockey agents, trainers, owners, racing secretaries, mutual managers, track management and bettors. Each has their own personality strengths and weaknesses. While fully capable and willing to issue discipline in any number of matters as required the decision to disqualify a horse for an in-race infraction is among the most public and as such is better made from a remote location. It’s less personal – as it should be. There is a benefit to the “man behind the curtain” approach even if it is just to satisfy those that find conspiracies at around every corner.
A Practical Approach to a National Replay Center
As a practical matter, racing has suffered from each state regulating it differently, causing the proverbial “patchwork quilt” of rules and regulations. This has led to each track staffing its stewards, many of whom are politically appointed to protect the state’s interest, separately and independently. For all the reasons stated previously, the stewards are indispensable to maintaining order and safe conditions for riders and animals. This is best accomplished by using their power to fine and suspend which I submit should be de-coupled from decisions that affect pari-mutuel results.
This new approach would be done voluntarily by tracks that would delegate the stewards’ authority on in-race infractions to the central agency. The track conducting the racing would still provide the video but be subject to minimum requirements and require a seal of approval by the central agency before being allowed to join. The steward attending the races live would offer his/her opinion by telephone but the decision would be made remotely by the officials at the remote location.
The funding would come from each track reducing the number of stewards to two overall with only one being required to attend the actual races. Their time could then be better used to police the myriad other issues that plague a modern racetrack. One would expect bettors to gravitate towards the tracks that use this service with its inherent uniformity and lack of bias. The additional handle would add to the cost efficiency.
Participating tracks could dispense with the cost of replay other than that required to allow the command center to tap into its television feed. Since it would be performing the function for numerous tracks the remote command canter could afford state of the art equipment and methodologies better than any one individual track. As technology continues to improve and advance this cost sharing will prove to be increasingly valuable.
This approach would also provide large scale statistical information on the number of disqualifications, where they occurred, who was riding, type of infraction, denied claims etc. This data base could be used by participants and bettors to determine and predict outcomes and make racing safer. The information could better educate young riders as to the types of actions which result in disqualification and the resulting suspensions and fines.
Taking the decision to disqualify horses from onsite stewards is a historical departure from tradition but one that offers numerous benefits and comes without undue cost. More uniformity in the area and the use of the best technology available will lead to greater confidence for the bettor and should in turn enhance handle for the participating tracks . It will also allow stewards to focus more on the areas that need governing that occur off track. It’s an idea whose time has come.