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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

GULFSTREAM STEWARDS GET IT WRONG THEN GET IT RIGHT, SORT OF

I watched the Caribe de Clasico, lynchpin of Sunday’s Clasico Internacional program, from the rail inside the Gulfstream Park winners circle alongside two colleagues, a racing official and a turf writer, who between them have a century’s worth of experience.

The Brother Slew, at 45-1, came flying down the lane to win the lion’s share of $300,000 prize by about 3/4 of a length, a very exciting finish to a unique racing hybrid: Call it the South American/Caribbean Equine Breeders’ Cup Olympics.

Within two minutes, announcer Pete Aiello informed the crowd that a stewards’ inquiry was in progress. Not long thereafter, Javier Castellano, aboard runnerup Gran Omero, joined the party and claimed foul against the winner, ridden by Paco Lopez.

A minute later, the three observers watched a pan shot of the replay and all agreed there wasn’t much there there, and if there were, it certainly wasn’t enough to alter the outcome–no disqualification necessary.

The next minute the head-on view appeared, reaffirming something I know and should have remembered before forming an opinion; another angle is needed. Sure enough, the head-on view loaned a better understanding of what happened, why the stewards called an inquiry in the first place.

Under severe right-handed “cropping,” The Brother Slew bore in approximately four paths. In the process, he crossed in front of the horse nearest his left flank and continued lugging in, perhaps kissing Gran Omero in the process but certainly putting that rival in precariously close quarters.

And this happened before Castellano was forced to check his horse dramatically, strides before the wire.

That incident alone would not have been enough to demote the winner, but pinning Gran Omero to the fence in the midst of his rally could have. That is not knowable; no one can say with certainty that Gran Omero was not going to win.

“That’s a different story,” said the turf writer after seeing the head-on. “That’s different,” the official agreed.

Since these are judgment calls, whether it be Category 1 or 2. In my opinion, the number should have come down. I realize that position is controversial.

Intimidation is against the rules, but is tolerated–all too often–in the name of “race-riding,” a tactical ploy. But this was different; this was dangerous, a win-at-all-costs ride. Lopez made no attempt to straighten his mount, his right-handed whip was unrelenting.

As photographers snapped away at both horses, prepared for whatever decision was made, I spoke with horsemen on the other side of the rail as they awaited an official ruling. I did not speak to one person who made a strong case for allowing the result stand. The stewards saw in differently.

That’s fine, that’s why they’re known as judgment calls. It wasn’t egregious, like in the waning moments of Chiefs-Patriots later that evening, but it was, at minimum, justifiably questionable.

About 36 hours after the fact, the Gulfstream stewards suspended Lopez five days for “careless riding.” These were the same stewards who last February sat Lopez down for 90 days for a dangerous foul that landed Romero Maragh in the hospital with major spinal surgery.

At the time the stewards termed the ride reckless, which it was, but the penalty was severe because Lopez had been warned repeatedly and has s history of higher-than-average demotions compared to other riders.

So, what are these five days about? Guilty conscience? On second thought we made a mistake so let’s just send a message?

If it’s the latter, it’s a mixed message. As an old school horseplayer, who did not stand to gain or lose from the decision, my question for other players is “which window do I take this to?”

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