Don Clippinger, who retired as editorial director of Thoroughbred Times in 2009, is the communications director of the National Steeplechase Association. Recipient of the 1996 Eclipse Award for magazine writing, he edited the first edition of the Racing Officials Resource Guide for the Stewards' School in 2005.
For baseball fans, and particularly those in the beleaguered city of Detroit, the evening of June 2, 2010, will forever remain a stain on the game. With two out in the ninth, Tigers journeyman starting pitcher Armando Galarraga was working on a perfect game.
The batter hit a grounder to the first baseman, Galarraga covered the base, and stepped on the bag for the final out. The only problem was that the first-base umpire, 21-year veteran Jim Joyce, called the runner safe. With no instant replay at that time, the clearly erroneous call stood. Joyce was tearfully regretful, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig refused to right an obvious wrong. So, the stain remains.
Baseball umpires make those sorts of calls every day, although usually not with the historic significance of Joyce's admitted blunder. So, too, do stewards, who are the umpires of the racing game. Stewards make hundreds of calls a day, and the vast, vast majority of them are on the mark. But when they blow one, the howls go up in racing publications and the blogsphere for their heads, or at least their jobs.
The Paulick Report in early July focused on two cases, separated by a continent, where the conclusion was that the stewards got it wrong. In one, the stewards were faulted for not lighting the inquiry sign in a timely fashion (although the Stewards' Corner entry on nyra.com/belmont indicated that an inquiry had occurred), and in the other for missing a foul.
The question rightly was asked, ‘Who's judging these guys in the stand?' The short answer, of course, is that they are judged by the people who sign their paychecks, whether it is a state racing commission or the racetrack. And, of course, the betting public judges the stewards, either vocally or implicitly by continuing to put their money on horses running at a specific track.
The long answer, however, is a bit more nuanced and requires some historical context. It's important to remember how the stewards have changed over the decades—nearly 40 years, in my case—and how they have become so much more professional. The stewards are better educated, they are better trained, and they are held to continuing-education standards not unlike those in professions like the law and medicine.
To be sure, giants once ascended those steps to the stewards' stand. The names of Marshall Cassidy, Keene Daingerfield, and Pete Pedersen, all now gone, come to mind. But they were surrounded by others of lesser credentials and integrity. Some were ex-jockeys or failed trainers who got lucky or had the right connections. They may not have been perfect, but they got most of the calls right, kept the races moving on time, and insisted that the jockeys ride even when the conditions were horrendous for man and beast.
That haphazard hiring hall began to change in the 1970s when the American Quarter Horse Association instituted a training program for its stewards. In the following decade, the stewards training programs began at the University of Louisville and the University of Arizona.
The Racing Officials Accreditation Program was established in 1991 to coordinate the training programs, and ROAP was energized in the mid-2000s by Dan Fick, then executive director of The Jockey Club. By the time I attended Stewards School in 2005, solely for the purpose of developing a course outline and resource guide for the joint curriculum, harness judges also were actively taking part in the training.
Believe me, Stewards School is one highly demanding week of training. It is 60 hours from early morning to late in the afternoon, with short breaks and no side trips unless you count the journeys into videotape to explore what a fixed race actually looks like.
The substantive segments were taught by several of the best-known names in the industry, including Bennett Liebman, now New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's deputy secretary for gaming and racing; Ned Bonnie, a ground-breaking equine attorney who is a Kentucky Racing Commission member; Dr. Scott Stanley of the Kenneth Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of California's Davis campus; and Dr. Scot Waterman, then the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
These were not sessions to snooze through; at the end, oral and written examinations were administered to the would-be stewards. Beyond the textbook learning, the steward candidates are required to have extensive experience as racing officials or as jockeys or trainers.
Nor is Stewards School a one-shot deal. After being accredited, stewards are required to take part in continuing education. For National Steeplechase Association stewards, for instance, 16 hours of training are required every two years to maintain eligibility for the NSA's more than 30 race meets. (Full disclosure: I'm the communications director for the National Steeplechase Association.)
To say that the stewards eagerly undertake the continuing education may be something of an understatement. For this spring's eight-hour course, led by NSA Director of Racing Bill Gallo Jr., more than 40 stewards packed a spacious conference room at Fair Hill, Md. Attending or presenting were some heavy hitters, including Association of Racing Commissioners International Chairman Duncan Patterson and Virginia Racing Commission Executive Director Bernard J. Hettel, a highly respected steward in his own right.
The NSA experience also makes clear that the stewards do much more than call balls and strikes. Dr. Reynolds Cowles, an NSA director who heads the Steeplechase Safety Task Force, credited the stewards with successfully implementing new safety standards for the spring meet. The safety standards added significantly to the stewards' burden, and they shouldered the additional tasks willingly.
Stewards at tracks across the continent still get called to task when they blow a call, and rightly so. But on the whole they are much better prepared for such a high-pressure position than their forebears. Can they be better? Without a doubt.
Just about every major sport has a Monday-morning quarterback. The National Football League has several of them, including a vice president of officiating and a director of officiating. Major League Baseball also reviews the calls by its umpires. But racing has no such mechanism for a regular, systematic review of the calls that are being made in the stewards' stand.
The reasons are obvious. The oversight of racing is fragmented among many state racing jurisdictions, and not all stewards apply the same standards. Some states continue to adhere to the Gertrude Stein school of officiating—a foul is a foul is a foul—while most jurisdictions now follow a more holistic approach and look at whether the incident affected the placings at the finish line.
Still, racing would benefit from the sort of review that occurs in professional football and baseball. An idea worth exploring is a peer panel of respected stewards who would look at the calls of the previous week on a Monday or Tuesday and provide their judgments. The panel would operate under the aegis of ROAP or a regulatory organization such as the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Their pool of races would come from the prior week's disqualifications and bettor input on races where they thought a disqualification was justified. Their judgments would be communicated back to the stewards and the racing jurisdictions as recommendations.
Such an arrangement would have its challenges. One would be stewards who do not want their calls reviewed by anyone—not their employers, not the bettors, not the trainers and owners, and certainly not a panel of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Another complication is that disqualifications can be appealed, and any communication from the stewards' panel might be subject to disclosure through discovery in legal proceedings.
But racing needs its panel of Monday-morning quarterbacks. Such a panel would strengthen the integrity of the sport and continue the process of creating a core of well-trained, well-informed stewards across all of racing.
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