Monday, March 03, 2014
Stewards Should Be More Than Just Traffic Cops
LOS ANGELES, March 2, 2014—Gulfstream Park’s highly successful Rainbow Six wager has set the stage for some serious debate regarding the accountability of stewards’ decisions.
In the wake of the controversial disqualification of last Saturday’s final race’s first-place finisher, horseplayers were clamoring for clarification of how a lone ticket-holder’s dream was denied by an arguably arbitrary decision. Having reached true jackpot status, the wager should continue attracting a lot of money, but now fear of futility may have become a factor.
Weather impact, surface switches, equine equilibrium, rider reactivity, starting gate shenanigans, scratches, traffic problems, etc., are all handicapping-defying hazards the horseplayer must accept. The “three men in a room” dynamic, however, has to be the hardest to swallow.
The game as we know it cannot exist without the Stewards’ authority to ensure that races are fairly run. If the actual order of finish were always permitted to stand, racing would soon degenerate into free-for-all, no-holds-barred contests resulting in equine bloodbaths that only the ancient Romans would bet on. Still the process is not perfect.
At the very least, any decision to disqualify should be unanimous, but such information is not currently forthcoming. Likewise, steward performance should receive no less scrutiny than the riders they regulate. Yet no such accountability is required and no review takes place.
John Pricci suggested that tracks provide live audio/video of the Stewards’ deliberations. Fellow HRI blogger, Tom Jicha, disagreed; opining that the camera would likely change behavior as feared in jury deliberations. That might be true initially, but eventually they would get their acts together, and fans would be treated to enlightening, if not entertaining, experiences.
Each steward’s vote and his justification should be recorded for periodic review and analysis as to appropriateness and consistency by a central authority. If such reform were implemented in this context, it would put pressure on racing to start holding others responsible for fair conduct of the game--trainers and veterinarians included.
What I’ve yet to see answered is “were they aware that the first place finisher would trigger the jackpot and, if so, did that information play any part in any individual’s decision?” This is not intended to be an indictment of any individual, rather the system as a whole. Is too much information—such as the possibility of one jackpot winner--being released in advance?
There are many facets to transparency, or lack thereof. When viewing the Sam F. Davis a few weeks ago, I noticed that -- at least for that race -- Tampa Bay Downs did not show the loading of the runners from behind the gate for the one mile and one sixteenth event. What followed might have been interpreted by some as either a Big Brownout in Oldsmar or some kind of Life At Ten lackluster look-a-like.
Just when it seemed as if Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux’s comeback was starting to gather momentum, the specter of Big Brown’s Belmont re-emerged when Desormeaux’s mount, Noble Cornerstone, finished next-to-last as the favorite.
As the horses were loading into the starting gate, track announcer Richard Grunder informed that Desormeaux was off his horse. Since he didn’t say the horse unseated its rider, I was left to assume it was the rider’s decision. Eventually Desormeaux re-mounted just prior to the start.
Daily Racing Form later reported that “Noble Cornerstone, the 9-5 favorite, was never a factor when finishing seventh after acting up badly just prior to the break. [Noble Cornerstone] absolutely freaked in the gate and lost his race right there,” said his jockey, Kent Desormeaux.”
Noble Cornerstone, racing without blinkers for the first time, “was off a bit slow, raced far back and showed little” according to the chart footnote.
Those who bet Noble Cornerstone didn’t get a run for their money and no one knows why. Should the horse have been scratched? Are there uniform guidelines for determining a horse’s fitness to race based on its behavior at the starting gate, or are only extreme examples such as Quality Road in the Breeders’ Cup Classic allowed to protect the betting public? What is, and what should be, the role of the stewards in such matters?
The controversial disqualification at Gulfstream has resulted in either maligning individuals in authority at Gulfstream Park or serious questions about of horseracing integrity in general. If this heightened awareness of the game’s flaws underscores the need for a central authority, so much the better.
One only needs to note how selective rebating and high takeout rates stacks the game against the average bettor. Maybe this unfortunate incident will give racing’s leaders amplification to what extent players are taken for granted and what needs to be done to level the playing field for all.