The 1994 Big 'Cap was decided by Pedersen and two of his colleagues, who ruled unanimously that the first-place finisher, The Wicked North, had interfered with the horse who ran fourth. The Wicked North was moved down to fourth place, and Stuka, beaten by almost two lengths and not involved in the alleged foul, was declared the winner. At The Derby, that night, Pedersen looked over to the next table, and the first person he saw was Phil Hersh, who owned The Wicked North.
Chip Sturniolo, who owned The Derby in 1994, recognized the juxtaposition of the Pedersen and Hersh parties. Sturniolo came over to Pedersen and whispered: "Pete, you know we could put you upstairs if you want." When Woolf owned the restaurant, he lived on the second floor, in a cozy apartment, and afterwards one of the rooms was converted into a private dining room, used only on occasions when eight or 10 regular customers sought privacy.
"No," Pedersen said, politely waving Sturniolo away, "we'll be all right."
After the race, an embittered Hersh promised that he would appeal the stewards' ruling. He did, too, unsuccessfully. Hersh and many others felt that the stewards had a vendetta against The Wicked North's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, who had been fined and lectured to several times when he failed to ride out beaten horses, costing them higher placings.
"Both of our parties ate our meals in peace," said Pedersen as he recalled that night. "The Hersh group finished first. Mr. Hersh got up to leave, and stopped briefly at my table. I thought, 'uh-oh, here it comes.' But he leaned down, and all he said was: 'You know, today was a very tough day for both of us.' Then he left. He saved my life when he said that."
I had called Pedersen not to talk about The Wicked North and 1994, but to discuss the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap, which had been run the day before. A groundswell of opinion thought that Game On Dude, who beat Setsuko by a nose in a tremendous duel, had initiated some bumping incidents in mid-stretch that cost Setsuko the race. The 90-year-old Pedersen, who worked as a steward for about 60 years before his retirement several years ago, has been on the hot seat for some of California's most high-profile disqualifications. Besides The Wicked North, Pedersen had something to do with Perrault being disqualified in favor of John Henry in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap, and he was also in the stand at Hollywood Park in 1984 for the first Breeders' Cup--when Fran's Valentine's number was taken down on the undercard, and Pedersen and two associates had to sort out the $3-million Classic, in which Wild Again's victory was allowed to stand following a melee with Gate Dancer and Slew o' Gold during the stretch run.
"I was there Saturday," Pedersen said. "Saw the race, watched the replays a number of times."
And? Tom Ward, one of the stewards for the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap, was one of Pedersen's partners in the stewards' stand for dozens of race meets over the years. The 2-1 decision for Game On Dude's number staying up was Ward and Scott Chaney for, Kim Sawyer against. But I knew that Pedersen wouldn't pull any punches.
"It wasn't an easy call," Pedersen said. "But I would have voted for disqualification. I don't think there was any question that the winner interfered with the horse (Twirling Candy) between him and (Setsuko). That started the chain reaction. And there was enough interference to merit a disqualification."
Much was made of Chantal Sutherland, the rider of Game On Dude, getting to talk to the stewards twice on the phone as they took 12 minutes before taking a vote. But it turns out that Victor Espinoza, who rode Setsuko, also picked up the phone twice, according to the Daily Racing Form. The objection by Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, was that Bob Baffert, Game On Dude's trainer, got on the phone with the stewards. Ward told the Racing Form that Baffert spoke briefly, for only a matter of seconds, and Ward said he wouldn't have taken the call had he known in the beginning that it was Baffert and not one of the jockeys.
The day after the race, Mandella said: "I said (after the race) that I had no comment, and I don't want to drag the game down by saying anything now about the (stewards') decision. I think they should talk to the jockeys, but I think it was chickenxxxx that Baffert was trying to talk to the other jockeys and to the stewards. I was trying to be a gentleman, and unless the trainer is claiming foul, I just don't think it's right that he is trying to talk to the jocks and the stewards."
Baffert has never been shy about punching in the stewards' number, sometimes in the strangest of circumstances. Prior to the 2001 running of the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, Baffert realized that he had erred in giving Point Given's jockey, Gary Stevens, last-minute instructions. Baffert told Stevens to have his whip in his left hand leaving the gate, when what he meant was the left hand for the stretch run, to discourage Point Given's lugging-in tendency. Baffert called the stewards, who relayed his wishes to an outrider, who caught up with Stevens shortly before the horses reached the starting gate. Whether the stewards should be used as conduits for race strategy is an arguable point.
Point Given won the race, and went on to the Horse of the Year title, and you would have thought that everything was hunky-dory. Uh-uh. Stevens was livid. "Obviously, the stick has to be in my left hand," he said after the race. "I don't know if (Baffert) thinks I'm a (effing) idiot or what. It didn't need to happen. It was a joke to me. Come on, I've been riding for 22 years, and I'm getting instructions three minutes from the gate?" The losers don't have a corner on weeping in horse racing.