ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL DECISION IN 2019, “THE YEAR OF THE DISQUALIFICATION”

ELMONT, NY — Jockey Club Gold Cup day began slowly but for Mark and me it was a day like a thousand others that preceded it. Back in the day, it would have been early for a work day but late for a big event race day.

And it was an orderly line of cars that proceeded through Gate 5 into the portion of the Belmont Park parking lot not piled high with Islanders’ Arena dirt.

The big takeaway at that juncture was that there were more Long Island people there to celebrate the public opening of their arena, five days after the “official” luminary ground breaking had taken place.

There were far more people in that section of the grounds than there were waiting to get into the Race Course itself. We exited the clubhouse elevator on the 4th floor Garden Terrace, the big restaurant overlooking Big Sandy.

I attend the Belmont Stakes every year when possible but have not been in the Garden Terrace for years. Couldn’t remember if it were an official policy regarding a dress code requiring suits, sports jackets and the like.

That concern was baseless after one jean-clad customer literally backed into us as we waited to check in at the Captain’s Desk. When our turn came, we were asked if we had a table preference; high, mid-level, on the glass.

Huh?

From mid-level, I looked down the entire row the length of the room and down the entire row of empty grandstand seats, all the way from Nassau to Queens. It was noon on Jockey Club Gold Cup day; the new normal.

I have been to all recent Belmont Stakes and there were many people in the building, returning yesterday disguised as empty seats. The HRI Faithful has been on this topic for weeks; yesterday I saw it for myself.

The $45 per person buffet was solid, worth the cost. Quality was very good and the kind of fare one one might expect to find in a brunch/luncheon experience with generous portions and accommodating service to match.

The overall scene was about what one expects to see at the racetrack these days when there’s not a spring classic or fall championship on the line. JCGC Day was the Fall racing day in New York. Now it the prep day of Fall.

However, this image is not the New York Racing Association’s fault. Rather, it is the fault of a country that has lost interest, turned their backs on racing in part because racing has turned its back on them. All have reasons why.

As for the racing, the short fields provided entertainment for fans than betting fodder for horseplayers and on that score, racing delivered:

An array of stunning finishes; Imperial Hint coming back on the inside to out-nod Belmont-loving Firenze Fire right on the line.

And it appeared there would be a reprise of that drama when Midnight Bisou was seriously challenged by Wow Cat soon after entering the straight. But graded-record-making Johnny Velazquez was being coy but needing to bring his mount out to meet the challenger.

The fillies came together, bumping in mid-stretch–seemingly to no one’s advantage or disadvantage–but the equine body language was one of a clearly superior equine shooing away her only rival.

“I’m running here, I’m running over here,” Midnight Bisou playing the equine role of Ratso Rizzo.

Code of Honor outside of Vino Rosso approaching the wire in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
photo: Mark Berner

But the Jockey Club Gold Cup was different, a much more physically challenging battle. It made for a difficult, tough call, however the decision turned out. In our view, no one was robbed here. But…

A review of the head-on shows what every reasonable observer needs to know. First, this wasn’t a case of two rivals coming together, it was one in which a single horse, encouraged by his rider, was the perpetrator–Vino Rosso.

Under left handed encouragement from Irad Ortiz jr., the older came out two paths and bumped his rival. A few strides later, still under a left hand, Vino Rosso came out again, and made contact again.

Correcting to the right hand, Vino Rosso was still drifting as he made contact for a third time, then the two set sail to the wire in the final sixteenth as a team, and here is where the wicket gets sticky.

Three year old Code of Honor had the forward momentum and was set to go by. He was outside, getting four pounds in weight, enjoyed the easier trip, reached even terms, and, by the strictest definition, failed the eyeball test.

Yes, he was being herded and yes it was his first time with older but, in our view, should have gone by.

Mark and I watched the head on together on the NYRA-Now feed in the parking lot. And I watched several more times this morning.

As we drove home, we agreed it was a very tough call, extra pressure given to the enormity of a prestigious Grade 1 title. “If you were to err on the side of caution in a controversial circumstance like this, what would you do?”

“I would have left it as it,” Mark said. “I agree,” I shot back. Having said that, however, nobody was robbed, just extremely unlucky.

Post race there were comments from Ortiz, trainer Shug McGaughey and owner Will Farish. They were as illuminating as they were predictable. But none from Todd Pletcher.

The thing about this is that Pletcher is one of the best communicators the game has known, maybe even surpassing his mentor, “Coach” Wayne Lukas. I’ve heard him respectfully disagree with decisions; always measured, always reasonable.

I can’t imagine how livid Pletcher must have been about yesterday’s decision. But he’s not unaware of the intense scrutiny the industry is undergoing at this time.

And he would not want to be too vociferous with respect to how a “Jockey Club” extravaganza was awarded to the “right connections.” Decisions, like the one made in Kentucky last spring, are no longer made in a vacuum.

Finally, Pletcher had this to say to NYRA press staffers Sunday morning:

“To me, it was a classic horse race from the top of the stretch to the finish line. Two horses hooked up and they brushed, but to me, no horse was ever knocked off stride and neither horse lost momentum because of it,” said Pletcher.

“It was a piece of race riding; Irad drifted out a little bit, Johnny drifted in a little bit. I’ve watched a lot of races and I felt pretty comfortable watching the head on there would not be a disqualification and I was surprised when there was.”

Regarding an appeal: “I spoke to both owners last night and they were sort of split. “They agreed they would not appeal but I plan to meet with thestewards today as well to get an explanation of what they saw.

“I didn’t feel like I saw the same thing, but seldom in these appeal situations does anything ever come out of it.”

Any consternation with respect to yesterday’s call started in Louisville on the first Saturday May, the fallout from which is unsatisfying to this day, whatever side of the argument you take.

The unintended consequences of any difficult decision, like the 32nd Santa Anita breakdown this week on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s midweek criticism of the sport in the New York Times, one month from Breeders’ Cup, was not the look anyone was seeking.

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22 Responses

  1. John,
    I was there yesterday and sat in the owners boxes, which are now given to account holders of NYRA. I guess that is NYRA’s way of paying customers back, after years of taking everything away from them.Imagine a racetrack where the best place to watch a race live is closed. Oh,that is Aqueduct and now Belmont which closed their 3rd floors. I can’t blame them though,during the week the attendance is probably under 500 patrons. It is sad when your TV program is better than your live program.
    As for the DQ. I was surprised it came down, but one of these days the Ortiz herders will learn to ride straight. Never thought it would come down and I also thought the Derby horse would stay. Problem with most riders today, they think herding is race riding. Watch replays of Cordero,Bailey and Dominguez and learn. Still,both DQ’s were legit tough calls and neither came close to the famous Allamuse take down which was highway robbery.

  2. It warmed my heart to read the story of two old buddies who just happen to be renown handicappers revisiting the scene of some of their most cherished memories. However, I seem to remember reading post-Derby remarks on these pages to the effect that “a foul is a foul” regardless of the purse or connections involved.

    Vino, on the other hand, has been breaking my heart for several seasons, now, and will undoubtedly do so again in the BC Classic.

    Blinkers apparently didn’t help Tacitus. Maybe a new jockey would … and maybe a different distance as well. He could now finally get a good price in the Classic, though, assuming Mott could finally figure out the son of Tapit …

    As was inferred by Mike Smith, I don’t think McKinsie’s connections wanted to come into the Classic off a hard-fought battle for a purse “dwarfed” by that of its casino-dole-fueled counterpart, the competing JCGC.

  3. Aaron, I decided my takeaway will be those great stretch drives that will be etched in memory. After all, how often do pre-race storylines play out as they did Saturday? There are just so many industry issues that the cynicism of it all wears you out, so you enjoy what you can.

    Yes, race-riding has become herding, as if judges are supposed to stand by and allow NBA play-on tactics to be acceptable. Can’t being doing for the horse and rider and saying you’re putting the animals first.

    And the Ortiz Bros. are not the only ones that do this; they virtually all do under these circumstances. At this place in time, it’s not the look racing can afford. Times change…

  4. Top Turf Teddy

    As I so callously blurted out on Twitter the other day, “All Repole’s money and all Repole’s men couldn’t put Vino Rosso in the winner’s circle again.” Heard they were thinking of appealing, Repole is a cry baby! Be a man! First and foremost, let me say that it was a breath of fresh air seeing them stymie Irad Ortiz, Jr.’s, intentional attempt to stymie his rival in the stretch. Everybody seems to think that which hand is being used to whip the animal is the only way you can control which direction a horse will maneuver; naive at best. Irad Ortiz, Jr.’s, skills in maneuvering these animals is incredible. He knows exactly what he is doing, and to put it bluntly, he is a dirty rider. My continuos opinion that if they would start giving stiff suspensions and monetary fines for offenses, not only would the offenses disappear, but their would be less inquiries, less time wasted, and less controversy. The difference between a gentleman rider like Mike Smith, and a nefarious, sneeky rider like Irad Ortiz, Jr., is the difference between night and day. My hats are off to the stewards. Keep up the good work and keep these midgets in line, and bring back sanity, safety and credibility to the game. And another thing, once a horse changes lanes in the stretch, and bumps a horse, nobody can say whether the horse lost momentum. These animals are all different; they react differently when their personal boundaries are infringed upon; some shy away; some get mad. In all cases, the horse needs to be 86d immediately; no questions asked.

  5. Ted, interesting observation, and I concur. Video indicates that VR came out three times, twice under left-handed urging, and a third, lighter bump, after Irad switched to a right-handed whip but used his left to keep pushing VR out.

    DQ’s and very strong fine schedule are needed to show that judges are taking this issue seriously and that the playing field is level for all..

  6. I just watched the head on again and read Todd’s post race comments above. Under full disclosure, I bet on Vino Rossi. Despite my apparent bias, it is this writer’s strong opinion, Vino Rosso should not have been disqualified. I cite Todd’s comments” no horse was ever knocked off stride and neither horse lost momentum,” as clear evidence to not disqualify.

    Race Riding is part of the game. If Stewards are going to penalize jockeys who race ride. Maybe its time to load the horses in the gate without jockeys. I’m not as old as some of the other contributors, so correct me if I have this wrong but wasn’t Angel Cordero called the intimadator for his aggressive race riding? My point race riding/herding has been around racing for decades.

    As John often says, “the EYE test.” It is also my opinion the #2 horse was never going to pass Vino. Sports are in turmoil in the country, all one needs to do is watch an NFL game. Flags fly like confetti in the NFL. Bettors are at the mercy of the zebras and stewards and the rules are not being applied consistently.

    1. Enjoyed your “flags fly like confetti” in the NFL. Often 3 and 4 flags on same play which shows that there is a ripple effect, ha, ha. Even listening to a game on the radio is tiresome as just when you thought points were going up on the board you hear, “wait, there’s a flag down.” There are phantom fouls and DQ’s in racing. Not sure abut JCGC decision. Both nice horses.

  7. John: Its nice to see that you and Mark enjoyed your day at Belmont. Without being flippant, the “solution” to the Gold Cup DQ problem was one that I came up with by accident, to wit, I boxed the 2&3 in the exacta! However, since I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt, I thought that the DQ was completely justified. Even though the NY stewards have not been consistent with their “Herding” rulings in the past, its about time that they enforced the rules as written. In this regard, the “lanes”, as they have been displayed on the Fox TV programs, have been very instructive as to how far a horse either bears out or bears in.

    As to the matter of attracting the public to Belmont, while it is certainly not the 60s 0r 70s anymore, hopefully the NYRA has a well-thought plan with regard to renovating the facility. There is an interesting article in today’s Newsday concerning the futures of both Aqueduct and Belmont. it certainly appears that the Big A’s days are numbered, and that Genting has the ear of the Governor as to making the Big A the first casino with table games in NYC. My query: When will New York, i.e., the Governor, realize that we are losing untold millions of dollars to New Jersey by refusing to allow online Sports betting through the existing casinos?

  8. TTT – I love reading your posts, but I think labeling Irad a dirty rider is a bit unfair. And that is coming from someone who bitched and moaned about the DQ as he was heading on a train to NJ, to Prudential Center for a concert, but then watched the replays Sunday morning and felt like it was a fine DQ. Yes Irad Ortiz does have outlier level ability to control a horse and the intention this time was to get out and throw a little monkey wrench into the path of 3yo in my opinion. Maybe we need a definition of dirty rider since I don’t necessarily think that goes over the line.

    I don’t do it often enough, but I always enjoy any race day I spend in the Garden Terrace and I always feel like I got my money’s worth. I think the bad will I felt when they took the seating away from that formerly nicely air conditioned area on the other side of the elevators has kept me from wanting to give them any more $ than I have to, despite it not being the fault of the very nice people who work in the Garden Terrace. In the late spring there would always be a handful of the same old timers up there, undoubtedly due in large part to needing the air conditioning to feel comfortable enough to attend. Now – aside from ponying up for the Garden Terrace fee – where in the complex can you sit in relative comfort on a sweltering day when you plan to spend 5 or 6 hours handing NYRA your business?

  9. Doc, someone from NYRA should answer your question, really thinking about how they are treating their older customers.

    Fram, I too boxed the exacta, so the change cost me a few dollars and, as stated, I would have aired on the side of leaving the result as is.

    But, also as stated, decisions cannot easily be made in a vacuum these days. And, to repeat, no one was robbed here.

  10. tTTWant to let everybody know when my money is on the line there is NOBODY I would rather have on my horse than Irad Ortiz, Jr. That does not change my opinion that the manner in which he rides has not only assisted in changing the paradigm further and further in favor of anything goes, and has turned the game into the demolition derby rather than the sport of kings.

  11. Let’s face it Ted, there simply is more race riding employed these days than every before despite all the calls for equine and rider safety. You speak of Irad, but brother Jose, Saez and Castellano, to name four elites, are expert race riders, though sometimes get overly aggressive and careless (think Derby). But as to “race riding,” they all might not be in Paco’s league.

    I say use College rules, not NBA rules…
    .

  12. Yeah, Paco Lopez is one where if someone calls him dirty, I’m probably not making much of an objection. Saez I’d imagine is the best candidate for that distinction out of the regular NYRA jocks – and that’s not to say he isn’t a top class rider. Not many better feelings as a bettor when you have Luis Saez on a big price on the grass and you see him gun out to the lead and then backs it up and slows the pace to a crawl while maintaining a 2-3 length edge.

    There was a time not too long ago where the DelMar meet was pretty competitive when stacked up against Saratoga, but now DMR has fallen far behind. Could just be that the money they run for on the average NYRA program at SAR and BEL lends itself to way more aggression in race – not to be confused with the SoCal riders all gunning for the lead right out of the gate which takes the in race judgement calls out of the riders hands. Look at the list of the top 10 riders out there and the top 10 here and you can see pretty quickly where the big boy pool is.

  13. Doc, just talking with Mark about this at BEL last week; don’t think I’ve ever seen NY Jocks Room this strong–on balance, across the board, dpeth type reference.

    Yeah, SoCal used to have the talent and the numbers but it does look like–no Eastern bias intended–that the talent pool has shifted East.

  14. Mal, when I think of P Val, the line from “Bronx Tale” always returns to haunt: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

    An example of why drugs are so insidious. At least he’s still with us; not so the engaging Chris Antley.

  15. P Val and Chris Antley were phenomenal riders. And Garrett Gomez might have been even better than those two.

    Makes me sad thinking about any of those three guys.

  16. Top Turf Teddy – The Prince of Pace

    Whenever I think of Angel Cordero, always recall actually being able to hear him screaming like he was being murdered when engaged in a stretch battle in an effort to intimidate his rival.

  17. Doc, indeed, three great talents that left the game too soon. Life can be the most formidable rival of them all…

    Ted, I think the screaming was more about motivating his mount than intimidating his rival. Whatever Angel’s motivation was, it sure worked. An all-time great in anyone’s book!

  18. My take on the DQ’s is a little different in that I believe races should be decided on the track and not in a steward stand.
    My suggestion would be to let the results stand in a situation like this.
    The remedy would be a stiff fine and suspension to jockeys for what is perceived as herding or race riding.
    Hit the riders in the the pocketbook hard enough that they correct their ways in the future.
    Don’t penalize bettors that chose the first horse to cross the wire, those who backed Vino Rossi in this case with Win wagers, or keyed him in exotics including multirace wagers.

  19. Mich, your idea has merit and been suggested before. It fell on deaf ears then, and probably will again. I totally understand the argument about not punishing the bettors.

    Not in this instance, because this was a close, tight call, but in cases where fouls were clearer cut, more egregious, would that be fair to bettors who had backed the fouled horse?

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