Stewards, What Were You Thinking?

February 26, 2015

Rest assured there was such a time. A time when the electricity we feel walking into the grandstand or clubhouse on “one of the days” was felt every Saturday. Every weekend was a holiday and even during the week, racetracks buzzed and felt special. Today you can shoot a cannon at most tracks during the week and be lucky to hit anyone. It didn’t have to be that way. Sure, progress and the like changed the landscape and created challenges, but they could have been met and defeated had the powers that be known just one thing. They didn’t. More on that later.

As a true lover of the game and all that it is and can be, I really hate when we shoot ourselves in the foot in our limited times on the big stage. We do that far too often, and it appears the frequency with which we do is actually increasing. I can write an awful lot about some recent steward decisions. I won’t. I’ll stay brief on that as it would just be more of the same. We’re going to keep this positive despite the challenges in doing so. Instead, I’ll go back and remind you of how I felt about the disqualification of Collinito. You have to remember that lovely call, disqualifying that horse and taking a rainbow 6 jackpot, of over one million dollars, away from some horribly unlucky player that day. You can read about it here. I’ll also remind you of how I felt about the non-disqualification in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. One of the worst decisions in the history of the sport. Both done with no accountability. You can read about that here.

We learned this past Saturday, “one of the days” that not much has changed. We still have stewards making bad calls, based on way too much subjectivity. They just do not get it right with the consistency needed to justify giving them, thus the game, any subjective leeway at all. Whether this puts me in the minority or not I believe to keep things fair, we need clearly defined rules, that state what warrants a disqualification and what doesn’t. Everyone, including jockeys, stewards, and bettors will have to stick to those rules. While I get the “it didn’t affect the race outcome” argument, that is subjective and we often do not agree on it. We’d have to agree on the rules. It is what it is.

The best example of the futility of that argument was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The stewards, and many a fan and bettor agreed, that because the foul occurred at the beginning of the race, it didn’t affect the outcome. People were emphatic about it. It was as if they knew. Santa Anita even pointed out how two of the stewards are former riders and they know. Well guess what, they were wrong and don’t know. I have spoken to a few hall of fame riders who disagree just as emphatically. I think Aaron Gryder put it well when he explained how a foul at the start impacts the outcome greatly as a horse may never recover and run the race they would have. Sounds like a no brainer.

In short, what occurred at Gulfstream on Fountain of Youth Saturday was inexcusable. The first inquiry involving House Rules in The Rampart Stakes resulted in no disqualification. House Rules did come over on Sheer Drama, no question there, but it was minor, House Rules looked to be pretty clear, and Joe Bravo looked to be going for an academy award as opposed to any placing in the race. Subjectively, I thought they made the right call based on the current rules and discretion it allows. The second inquiry resulted in the disqualification of Upstart who staggered home first in The Fountain of Youth, but came out on Itsaknockout in the process. Luis Saez was forced to stop riding, as Upstart came out into his horse’s path, as opposed to Bravo who looked like he chose to. At least that is how it looked to me and I thought again with the discretion allowed the right call was made. Here is where things totally fall apart and scream for what I have been saying for years now: clearly defined rules that limit discretion. In the last race on the card, Danish Dynaformer came out on Dreaming of Gold very close to the wire. Dreaming of Gold was impeded to the point it appeared it cost him the win. It happened closer to the wire than the other two and looked more significant. The inquiry resulted in no change which stripped the other two decisions of any credibility they may have had.

There is no reasonable or logical way you can disqualify Upstart, and not disqualify Danish Dynaformer in the very next race on the card. It left a terrible taste in many observers’ mouths let alone affected very large amounts of money.

The rules in Florida state that if, in the opinion of the stewards, the infraction did not affect the outcome, then no disqualification has to be made. There is no logical way any educated race watcher can say The Fountain of Youth incident affected the outcome, but the last race infraction didn’t. It’s as simple as that. The aftermath saw what the game needs least, fans and bettors blasting the sport all over social media and screaming about how it can’t be on the up and up.

California reminds me of an old joke about who I guess was a bad guy that passed away. They were having a hard time finding someone to do his eulogy. His pastor refused claiming he did not know him long or well enough. It was just an excuse. Finally they had to go back to his childhood to find someone willing. At the service which was not very crowded his old acquaintance stood up and looked out at the attendees, and appeared to be searching for the right words. He looked around and said “his brother was worse”.

California is worse. Consistent in some ways but worse. The other day Oakcrest Stables’ Bert’s Melody went wire to wire in winning an allowance race from the eight hole. He ran a nice race under Brice Blanc. The problem was, he cut off half the field out of the gate. Well we have already learned just about any gate infraction is allowed in California. To their credit the stewards allowed the blatant foul and made no change. They are pleased with the discretion the current rules allow or at least appear that way. At the CHRB meeting later that week I heard one of the owners or partners in Oakcrest Stables, who is also a member of the CHRB, was discussing this non disqualification with the stewards. If that is indeed true, as I could not get myself to listen, than it is a pretty big conflict of interest from where I sit. It surely isn’t sending out the right message. That’s not the worst of it either.

Have you heard any plausible explanation of the odd move made by Martin Garcia right around the 5/16ths pole in the Robert Lewis? I am betting you haven’t. I certainly haven’t. If you watch the replay of the race you will see some curious happenings that at the least warrant an explanation. At just about that point in the race Garcia extends his left arm all the way out towards the infield. You have to watch him closely to see it, and it happens right after they break away from split screen on the replay so it’s harder to see, but if you watch you’ll catch it. While I would seriously doubt he did anything wrong, and make no accusation whatsoever, it was an odd enough move to be addressed. That was a perfect example of an opportunity to show the public the game is watched and policed properly. Crickets. I wrote to the CHRB but was ignored. Another writer I know also wrote and did receive a reply. He was told Garcia was switching goggles. That happened prior to the incident I described and was and is very visible on the replay. That wasn’t the incident we were talking about.

There are a lot of stewards and officials across the country who do a fine job and serve the game and its supporters well. They are not the issue. We all know it is a respected position of integrity and at times can be a thankless job. They are needed and should be respected as far as I am concerned. The issue is the inconsistency of some of the calls and reasoning. If it’s broke fix it and this is an easy fix. If you can’t support the clearly defined rules taking away the discretion and subjectivity, how about microphones in the stewards room, or cameras, and revealing who voted how, and providing detailed explanations? After all it is our money they are talking about.

It amazes me the rapid climb poker went on as our sport waned. What did they know that we didn’t? It’s easy, they knew who their customer was. Las Vegas knows who their customer is. Racing, not so much. Racing shuns its core customer, the gambler. They avoid the word and all the clichés associated with it. It isn’t housewives looking to be entertained watching TVG or HRTV. No it’s gamblers. It isn’t concert goers or families looking for a day at the park frequenting racetracks, it’s gamblers. For far too long racetracks treated gamblers as if the track was the only game in town and they’d show up no matter what. For years that worked but as the times and landscape changed so did that. ADW’s made it easier to play from more comfortable surroundings. Other games provided options. An elementary rule of business is take care of your customers or someone else will. How can racing take care of their customers if they won’t acknowledge who they are?

Racing needs to be promoted as poker was which is as a game of skill. Not that you will likely lose but you can have some fun watching animals run. We are not going to grow our customers that way. Show people they can win. Teach them how. Embrace and support technology. Most importantly run the game right. No drugs, consistent rules, fair play across the board. The game is tough to beat but not impossible. Adding more obstacles than that which are inherent to it like bad rulings and drugs just drives people to the poker tables if not the lottery. Las Vegas promotes games of chance better than we can market a game of skill.

The game is tough to beat but not impossible. Adding more obstacles than that which are inherent to it like bad rulings and drugs just drives people to the poker tables if not the lottery. Las Vegas promotes games of chance better than we can market a game of skill.

The poker players are treated as stars. Our gamblers are overcharged for crummy hot dogs at most venues. What really is a shame though is when a venue tries to get it right like Santa Anita and Gulfstream both do, providing a beautiful atmosphere and experience, only to lose it when stewards leave a sour taste in bettors’ mouths. Nobody is saying you can please everyone all the time, no, not at all, but you have to be consistent.

Even NYRA it seems can’t wait to raise prices on Belmont Day and for Saratoga every year. They don’t get that their bread and butter comes from betting not gouging. Leave the money in the players’ pockets and they will put it through the windows. Thus higher handle and your takeout is more. Give them the hot dogs, they’ll be happier, stay longer, bet more and come more. We are not like sports venues where people come to watch an event. People come to us to bet their money. Act accordingly.

The implementation and subsequent retraction of the 15 day rule speaks for itself. To those of us who called it a useless knee jerk reaction, that failed to adequately address the problem, we may have been on to something.

Not to make light of the beauty and magnificent grace of our horses. That is an added plus we can all embrace and sure it will bring in some crowds when a star is running or a Triple Crown is on the line. It won’t help on Thursday though will it? Take care of your customer or someone else will.

You can have all the summits and pow wows you like. You can read all the expert posts and tweets with all the answers and plans. Until you know who your customer is, you won’t make an inch of progress.

Past The Wire thanks all who were kind enough to extend a prayer for Jockey Agent Lou’s wife. Please keep them going. She is doing better but not out of the woods. Both Lou and I thank you and I am sure she does as well.

High Five

Jack Wolf and Starlight Stables, nice to see winning with class and humility. Miguel Mena, nice ride on International Star. Mike Smith did a déjà vu on Far Right.

Low Five

TVG boasts about its new Gulfstream coverage then leaves Caton Bredar standing in the paddock with Shug while they chatter and show a claiming post parade at Santa Anita. Worse on Saturday they fail to cover or show the head on of the inquiry in the last race with the rainbow 6 hanging in the wake. Come on guys. And while we are at it, Gulfstream’s last race also has results. You may want to cover them too, some people may have bet. Equally as bad, Twin Spires has some blogger write a blog for them they apparently supported, saying how the stewards were consistent at Gulfstream on Saturday. The blogger was quite adamant which is fine, as to each their own. The joke however, was they did not even mention the last race and inquiry, which was the whole story in regard to the inconsistency. Wow. How could you post that and not include the last race?

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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  1. Al Feb 26, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I think this was one of your finest articles.Horse racing is a wonderful game i just wish the powers to be would get on the same page and be consistent.Please keep writing and one day maybe it will hit home.

  2. Bob Mar 2, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    Man, you hit this on the head. The stewards should be accountable to us when there are obvious infraction as you so poignantly identified. Decisions are made on the money we’ve invested with no explanation at all. Poof! A switch and it’s over. What happened? The BC/2014 was a mere fiasco. An infraction is an infraction whether it occurs at the start-middle-or end of a race. Then again, it’s Bob Baffert and California racing. Also, racing execs are always trying to compare horse racing with NHL and NBA etc. However, sports fans buy a ticket, some popcorn, a beer and sit and watch the game. We, on the other hand, have to pay entry fee, pay for parking, buy a program, buy a seat, and still have to have money to wager, while the one-arm-bandits are wined and dined FOR FREE. Wake up Execs.

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