Sunday, March 06, 2011
When a Steward Needs a Friend
Since Solomon, the Magi and Benjamin Disraeli had other plans, it fell to Kim Sawyer, Scott Chaney and Tom Ward to decide whether Game On Dude or Setsuko would win the 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. Mere mortals, they. A fly on the wall in the stewards' stand would have been privy to an interesting 12-minute discussion, as they determined who did what to whom down on the bridle path. It's a good thing stewards come in odd numbers, because the vote was 2-1, in favor of Game On Dude, who was the first-place finisher to begin with. Had there been a perfect squelch, somebody who would have voted "present," then the old Santa Anita grandstand might not have been able to withstand the turmoil.
There was enough rancor to go around. There were lusty boos before and after the stewards' inquiry. Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, who missed by a nose after twice almost being knocked down in the stretch, said next to nothing. This is not Mandella, never has been, but there he was, in the wake of the outcome, offering "I've got nothing to say, no comment, it wouldn't be worth writing," and walking away. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, was more to the point. "It's the wrong decision," he said. "I don't know why it took so long to make the wrong decision. I think the stewards are blind. They need to have some education so people know what's going on at the races. Obviously, those three stewards, they don't know what they're looking at. How many times do they have to drop me to disqualify the horse? That's insane."
Before the bumping, Sutherland had already hit Game On Dude twice lefthanded as they left the quarter pole. When the horses straightened out, there was Game On Dude on the inside, with Setsuko on the outside and Twirling Candy, a 1-2 shot in need of a respirator, between them. Twirling Candy and his rider, Joel Rosario, drifted to the outside, slamming into Setsuko. Twirling Candy bounced off and was headed in Game On Dude's direction, but before he could get there, Sutherland whacked her mount two more times lefthanded. I watched this in slo-mo dozens of times, and every time I came away convinced that Game On Dude bumped Twirling Candy before Twirling Candy made contact with him. There was daylight between the two horses while Sutherland was flailing away. When the horses finally bumped, that sent Twirling Candy to his right again, as Setsuko took the worst of it for the second time. Setsuko still made the lead, by a tiny margin, before Game On Dude came on again, just in time for the wire. Twirling Candy finished fifth.
Of the stewards, Chaney and Ward voted for no change in the result. Sawyer, who felt that Game On Dude and Twirling Candy were equally responsible for the bumping, came down on the side of disqualification. Chaney saw something I didn't. "It's a fair debate whether (Game On Dude) came out a little bit," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "The lefthanded whipping actually makes the horse look like he's coming out. But we looked at the horse itself and not the lefthanded whipping. (Game On Dude) was still going straight. On a quick glance, it looks like (Sutherland) is hitting lefthanded, the horse comes out and just starts the big disaster. But if you watch it closely, the inside horse goes very straight, maybe comes out an inch if you want to be really critical, but most of the drifting is coming from the middle horse and (he) makes contact and causes the whole chain reaction after that. There are several more bumping incidents, but it was initiated by the middle horse (Twirling Candy)."
No matter how many times I watch the head-on, I see daylight between Twirling Candy and Game On Dude, until Sutherland begins her whipping. "The inside (Game On Dude) came out, and the outside (Setsuko) kind of stayed with me," said Rosario, Twirling Candy's rider. "He (Game On Dude) bumped me pretty hard, and I lost control. After that, I didn't have anything. I lost all the momentum."
Baffert's win came on top of his win in the race last year with Misremembered, a horse he bred. He started four horses this time.
"The five (Twirling Candy) came in, and his hind end hit the 11 (Game On Dude), and that started a chain reaction," Baffert said. "(Rosario, on Twirling Candy) was out of horse, and that's what started that ping-pong effect. It was a tough call. The first time I saw it, live, I thought we might be in trouble. But when I saw the replay, I knew there was a chance of us staying up."
Sutherland, one of Canada's leading riders, doesn't ride for Baffert, but she got the call when John Velazquez, Baffert's jockey at entry time, stayed back in Florida to ride at Gulfstream Park. A female jockey had never won the Big 'Cap, and in fact, few of them had ever ridden in the race. Robyn Smith and Julie Krone rode in the race once each, and last year Sutherland finished 10th with Pool Play, a 70-1 shot. Game On Dude, who had run only once since running fourth in last year's Belmont, was 14-1. Before Game On Dude, Sutherland had won only three races the entire meet. "If you're sitting there at the right time," she said, "something great can happen." Her body language was one wall-to-wall smile.