Thursday, April 02, 2009

Florida Stewards Choose Not to Acknowledge Big Drama’s Track Record

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., April 1, 2009--Question: Which horse currently owns the track record for seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park?

Hint: It’s a trick question.

Hint II: He didn't run in Saturday’s Grade 2 Swale Stakes on the Florida Derby undercard.

Hint III: No horse has ever won the Swale Stakes.

The Gulfstream Park association stewards have decided not to recognize the track record clocking of 1:20.88 set by Big Drama last Saturday. The previous--and still--track record holder at the distance is Elusive Quality, timed in 1:21.11 in 2006.

The Florida state steward has not weighed in on the decision and will not. The state steward does not get involved in matters pertaining to racing records.

The stewards acted under Gulfstream Park’s Rules of Racing, Article III, section 2, sub-paragraph a., which states:

“In determining the extent of disqualification, the stewards in their discretion may: Declare null and void a track record set or equaled by a disqualified horse, or any horses coupled with it as an entry.”

“What I saw was a new track record and I got taken down,” Big Drama’s trainer David Fawkes said to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch.

The disqualification was justified. Yes, the first contact was slight, certainly not as consequential as the second in which This Ones For Phil was sloughed badly by the winner, who bore out and knocked the place finisher off stride.

The argument that the second bump didn’t alter the outcome because it occurred right at the line with the leader a half-length in front is valid. But as I repeatedly watched the head-on view several times, I would have made the same judgment call.

But I also would have acknowledged Big Drama* as the Gulfstream Park seven furlong record holder. The asterisk would stand for “finished first, but was disqualified for interference and placed second.”

What would be the harm in that?

When I covered harness racing early in my career, I recall rules regarding lapped-on horses; those that finished within a length of the first-place finisher that broke into a gallop at the finish line. It also concerned horses that set personal lifetime marks.

In the first case, winners were disqualified and placed behind the horses lapped on it at the finish if there were more than one. In the second instance, lifetime marks were not acknowledged following a disqualification, however. That may or may not still be the case.

(Stan Bergstein, please weigh in).

Whether This Ones For Phil would have beaten Big Drama had the horses never bumped is arguable. Rick Dutrow and Garrett Gomez said their colt would have run Big Drama down.

I didn’t think he would catch him if they went around again. Not surprisingly, Fawkes made the same argument. But neither opinion could ever be confused with fact.

Another argument for recognizing the track record performance is that the significant bumping did occur right at the line. And who’s to say the incident didn’t prevent Big Drama from running even faster?

The best argument for allowing the record to stand is that running time--how fast a horse goes from point A to point B--is the only absolute truth in the game

Besides, it would have made a great trivia question.

It’s not surprising that the stewards have wide latitude in the administration of their duties. Some examples:

“A jockey shall not unnecessarily cause his/her horse to shorten stride so as to give the appearance of having suffered a foul.”

See Kent Desormeaux on Theregoesjojo in the Florida Derby. It wasn’t quite a “frivolous” claim that could have resulted in a fine for Desormeaux but Academy Awards have been handed out for less.

“When the stewards determine that a horse shall be disqualified for interference, they may place the offending horse behind such horses it, in their judgment, interfered with, or they may place it last.”

The last phrase seems a bit draconian but is necessary when a horse bears in or out so badly that it causes a chain reaction involving many horses. There’s no need to split hairs in that instance.

“A jockey serving a suspension of 10 days or less is permitted to ride in one or more designated races during the period of the suspension if: The race is a stakes race or any race with a purse of $75,000 or more, and… the jockey agrees to serve an additional day of suspension in place of the day he/she rides in a designated race, which additional day of suspension is to be determined by the stewards.”

This might seem like justice delayed but it‘s not. The rule is about safeguarding the rights of an owner that might have contracted a jockey to ride in an important race well in advance. Why punish an innocent party?

Besides, if they wanted, the stewards could choose a major race day well in advance which would prove a costly but just punishment.

“All horses shall be ridden out in every race. A jockey shall not ease up or coast to the finish, without reasonable cause, even if the horse has no apparent chance to win prize money. A jockey shall give a best effort during a race and each horse shall be ridden to win.”

Probably the most abused rules in the game. Whenever stewards are questioned about this after having taken no action, the standard response is “we spoke to the jock, gave him the what-for,” etc. etc.

Better the rider receive a very stiff fine so that he might remember not to do it again. His cavalier action could cost the customer a small fortune should some horses finish sixth by a nose.

“The stewards shall have the authority to interpret the Racing Laws and the House rules and to decide all questions of racing not specifically covered by either.”

That goes not only in Florida but anywhere in the country. But that’s also why stewards should be made to make rulings relating to decisions pertaining to parimutuel payoffs in writing, as is the case in Hong Kong, for instance. Transparency is essential if bettors are to have faith in the system.

And regarding Hint III? Only three-year-old colts or geldings can run in the Swale Stakes under current conditions. “Horses” are defined as males 5 years old and older. Fillies can run in the Swale, if they wish, but not “mares,” females 5 years old and older.

Written by John Pricci

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