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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Three groups determine the Eclipse championships: The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Daily Racing Form. Maybe this year a fourth should be added, track stewards. In fact, maybe this year the usual three should be jettisoned and the stewards should make all the determinations.

In effect, this is what is happening. Controversial stewards’ decisions at the Kentucky Derby and Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup could be decisive factors in at least the 3 year-old colt division, outstanding older dirt male and possibly Horse of the Year.

Alas, there’s still three months left in 2019, including the Breeders’ Cup, for the stewards to have an impact on other categories.

Churchill Downs stewards after the 2019 Kentucky Derby

As I wrote in the spring, the DQ of Maximum Security in the Derby was justifiable but given the magnitude of the event, it was a close enough call that I didn’t think it should have been done. A disqualification in America’s biggest race should be so indisputabe that no reasonable person would take an opposing position. This wasn’t the case the first Saturday in May. It doesn’t take 23 minutes to make an obvious call.

I felt like that squared Saturday. This wasn’t the finest Jockey Club Gold Cup field ever but Code of Honor and Vino Rosso put on one of the most memorable stretch duels. Too bad it won’t be remembered for that but for a really dicey disqualification.

Vino Rosso and Code of Honor did come together but “bumped” overstates reality. Brushed is more descriptive. Neither horse was thrown off stride or stopped fighting full out the length of the stretch.

Todd Pletcher is about as level-headed a person as you will find in sports. Reportedly his initial inclination when Vino Rosso came down was to appeal. He was subsequently over-ruled by Vino Rosso’s owners.

Good for them. I disagree with the call but sports should never get into the courts. The decision of the judges (stewards) should be final.

The entire situation undermines the conflict of interest theories that jockeys will not claim foul against regular clients. No one has won more races, more graded stakes, for Pletcher than Velazquez.

They are each largely responsible for the other being in the Hall of Fame. Johnny V. remains Pletcher’s go-to rider on the best from his loaded barn. Yet he didn’t hesitate to claim foul against Pletcher’s Vino Rosso in one of America’s richest and most prestigious stakes.

Code of Honor, on the basis of being put up in a questionable decision, is being talked up for the 3-year-old championship, which wouldn’t be in doubt if Maximum Security hadn’t been taken down in a controversial call.

But for the Derby DQ, Maximum Security would be a leading contender for Horse of the Year.

If Vino Rosso had been allowed to keep the triumph he earned, it would have been his second Grade 1. With McKinzie’s defeat in the Awesome Again, Vino Rosso would be a strong contender for an Eclipse. The stewards changed that on what has to be called a less than borderline call.

Not to be forgotten, although they routinely are, are the fans who bet Vino Rosso. Imagine the bad taste they had in their mouths going home. Is it enough to sour them on racing? Could be but with its dwindling fan base, it’s a chance racing can’t afford to take.

To reiterate, unless a foul is blatant and clear, results should be allowed to stand “as is,” especially in important stakes. No one could argue this was the case Saturday.

Championships should be decided on the track, not on the top floor of the grandstand.

Politicians are mortal foes

I’ve had some lively exchanges over my adamant stand against getting politicians involved in supervising horse racing. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has demonstrated twice in the past week why I feel the way I do.

Monday, Newsom signed a bill, the Fair Pay to Play Act, whose passage he had championed, that will make California an outlaw state in collegiate sports. It allows college athletes to essentially become pros by permitting them to profit from their endorsements and likeness.

This sounds long overdue. It seems pro-young people, especially young black men, who are among the most heralded and marketable athletes. The only constituency against it, fat cat university administrators, are people politicians love to have in the opposite corner.

Newsom is a consummate politician. Telegenic, youthful and personable, his entire career has been one stepping stone after another (mayor of San Francisco, governor of California) toward an eventual bid for the White House.

There’s a lot positive to be said about the bill he signed. It’s been often pointed out that major programs take in hundreds of millions of dollars while the athletes aren’t allowed to profit one cent from their own name.

However, there’s much to be desired. Until other states follow suit, California schools would have an intolerable advantage. They would attract the best athletes because the young men and women could reap considerable compensation while they build their reputations in the hope of officially becoming pros. For this reason, the NCAA could bar them from national championship competitions.

Income inequality is a hot political topic. This will create the mother of inequality. There will be situations in which the guards and tackles, who open holes for the celebrated running backs, or the point guard, who feeds a big-time scorer, don’t have money for a pizza and Coke or to take their mate to a move, while the stars dine in the finest places in town—certain the check will be picked up.

Wait for the team bus after the game? That’s for the common folk. A stretch limo will be waiting outside the locker room. Maybe a private plane after away games. See the rest of you guys back on campus.

Newsom doesn’t care because the Fair Pay to Play Act will go over big with the masses, his only concern.

This is why he and others like him are so dangerous to racing. If Newsom is willing to take on collegiate sports, notably football and basketball, he wouldn’t have a second thought on coming down on horse racing.

Racing is never going to win a public relations battle against animal lovers. There is no defense for the deaths of beautiful animals. Politicians know this.

Newsom played to this in a conversation with The New York Times—a strong ally for an ambitious politician. The Times, which has it in for racing, interviewed Newsom in advance of last Friday’s re-opening of Santa Anita, where 30 horses died during the winter-spring meeting.

Newsom started with something with which everyone could agree. “What happened last year was unacceptable.”

Then he launched a hyperbolic screed, which made it sound like race people are heartless scoundrels, who don’t care about the animals under their care. “Talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses of these precious animals and the willingness to just spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace. If you don’t reform yourself, you’re going to get reform you in many ways won’t like.”

As governor of an individual state, Newsom has carte blanche to do what he wants in California. Thankfully, only California.

If the feds get under the tent, there will be dozens of political opportunists ready and willing to act on a national basis.

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4 Responses

  1. TJ,
    I’m as unhappy about Vino’s takedown as anybody, but even I could tell Code of Honor was negatively impacted by the contact obviously initiated by the former. DQs are part of the game. Should the rules be changed for clarity, uniformity, and fairness? Certainly!

    The rules for a Derby DQ may well require special considerations. It’s hypocritical to run a 20-horse field and then claim safety is their primary concern.

    I don’t believe the latest Derby winner should have been taken down, but the first-place finishing connections should not then have benefited financially to the full extent, and the jockey should have been fined and suspended. Perhaps diverting some fraction of the first place purse distribution to those directly affected by the winner would have been more appropriate in that situation, but what about others?

    All DQs should be unanimous and all deliberations confirmed by a national body of distinguished stewards. On-track stewards be rotated nationally once uniform rules are in place.

  2. Stewards are just referees who kick it up to the league office? That’s not how racing is regulated.
    The only standard that seems fair and not open to omniscient prediction is a foul is a foul.
    In the days gone by, Cordero was lauded for his race riding and jockey disputes were settled with fists in the jocks room.
    Now both events draw fines. A sign of the times.

  3. I think all racing fans agree that racing cannot afford to let another minute pass without cleaning up its image. Yes, a product of the times–the times we are currently living in, like it or not. Past of that process should include what goes on between the fences.

    Race- riding goes on in virtually every race anymore but the only time people seem to object is when it results in a DQ in a big spot. I understand the level of frustration in relation to the big prize. It’s hard enough getting there.

    But the time for deliberate bumper-car horse racing is over. If not, then it’s the same-old, same old rhetorical nonsense.

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