How ironic is it that on the golden anniversary of one of the greatest rivalries in Thoroughbred racing history, the New York stewards wouldn’t allow Ron Paolucci to do what it allowed Mrs. Edith W. Bancroft to do 50 years ago in the storied Woodward Stakes?

Mrs. Bancroft, of course, the breeder and owner of Hall of Fame champion Damascus, is the daughter of William Woodward Sr., the scion of Belair Stud, whose white silks with red polka dots graced the Belmont Stakes winners’ circle five times in the 1930s. The Woodward Stakes that bears his name has been run since 1954.

A notable aside: Mrs. Bancroft was also the breeder and owner of a swift stakes sprinter by the name of Hedevar which, thanks to the 1967 renewal of this storied race, arguably became the most celebrated “rabbit” in Thoroughbred history. Her son, Thomas W. Bancroft Jr., later became Chairman of the NYRA Board of Directors.

Hedevar’s mission, of course, was to sap the reserves of the great Dr. Fager, whose great speed gave him a tactical advantage over his arch rival. But his presence in the Woodward of 50 years ago just as well could have aided Buckpasser’s late surge but, as history shows, was no match for that of Damascus.

However, it appears that today’s stewards are now in the handicapping business and can predict exactly what will happen in a horse race, and they can, “in racing’s best interests,” help predetermine an outcome by preventing an owner in good standing from spending his money in a way that is within the rules and regarded as a time honored racing tactic.

By any handicapping standard, May. B, a seven year old gelding purchased by Paolucci after finishing second in a $35,000 Del Mar claiming race after winning a Los Alamitos starter-allowance sprint by 9-1/4 lengths in his previous start, had no reasonable chance to win Saturday’s Woodward.

Clearly on form, May B clearly did not have the class or ability to compete in the nine furlong Grade 1 route, and does not even measure up to the standards of rabbits past, but he was purchased and nominated to the race to do one job: Help insure a strong early pace for Paolucci’s late running War Story.

Instead, the New York stewards invoked the discretionary powers granted to them by racing rule 4025.2 and determined that the nomination and entry made by Paolucci would be revoked because they “feel all horses that enter should be able to win” and take issues like this on a “case by case basis.”

What the stewards failed to address is that they also had the discretionary power to couple May B. and War Story in the wagering, thus protecting the public and ensuring the rights of an owner in good standing who, as an aside, is regarded as one of racing’s good guys for his charitable work inside and outside the sport.

Now while May B. obviously lacked the credentials to beat any of his Woodward rivals, I personally never have encountered anyone who believed that Gallant Man couldn’t run down Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes without Nero’s assistance, or that Buckpasser needed his speedy mate, Great Power, that Loach was of comparable ability to Strike the Gold--or that Hedevar would out-finish Dr. Fager, Buckpasser and celebrated stablemate Damascus a half century ago.

But that didn’t stop all those politically acceptable owners from entering their rabbits to insure that their classier charges would have their best chances stolen from them by a comparable loose leader that would be allowed to set a snail’s pace.

Of course, rabbits do not prevent other late-running rivals from benefitting from fast fractions, and neither did the track veterinarian prevent a sound May. B from competing, albeit poorly, in Saturday’s seventh race against a full field of hard-hitting sprinters with its 22-and-44 speed types.

On its face, this ruling was a capricious and arbitrary call when the New York stewards could have coupled the Paolucci stablemates, just as they allowed Cautious Giant to be War Story’s rabbit in the Whitney at the same track four weeks earlier.

Had he surmised, Paolucci could have entered another speedster, Mo Don’t Know, who was good enough to win a stakes at Thistledown one week ago. But since May B.’s entry was denied at the last moment, it is unreasonable to expect that Mo Don’t Know would van to Saratoga from Cleveland, a racing situation that would have been fraught with as much “danger” as running May B in yesterday’s prestigious feature.

It is interesting to recall that these same stewards allowed a controversial Belmont week barn change prior to the 2016 renewal won by Creator. On that occasion, the speedy Gettysburg was transferred from Todd Pletcher to Steve Asmussen with the announced intention that Gettysburg would serve as a rabbit for late-running Creator, who won a tight photo finish from Destin.

Subsequently, Pletcher was miffed to the point that when the winning WinStar group offered Gettysburg back to Pletcher post-race, the trainer said thanks but no thanks. What made that sacrificial entrant OK? What reasonable chance did 55-1 Gettysburg have to win the Belmont? He was, however, good enough to earn $30,000 for finishing eighth.

As all racing fans know, Thoroughbred racing has a serious optics problem. This kind of double standard that gives certain owners first class consideration while giving other less well connected owners something less should not be repeated, especially when the stewards, whose first responsibility is to safeguard the public, had a viable coupling option.

When given the opportunity to respond to events, Paolucci told Daily Racing Form: “I’m not trying to make a mockery of the race. I love the sport. I don’t want this to be the headline.”

When Gun Runner underscored his Whitney tour de force by setting a Woodward Stakes record, the chestnut’s brilliance became the headline that matters. But his victory will come with an asterisk when someone asks: “So what ever became of tradition in the sport of horse racing?”

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 3, 2017