Controversial Calls: Stewards’ Rulings Need More Transparency, Accountability
Remember Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, the one that ended with an obstruction call, giving the St. Louis Cardinals a 5-4 win over the Boston Red Sox after it appeared the game would be going into extra innings when Allen Craig was thrown out at home plate?
It was one of the most unusual and controversial endings ever seen in a World Series.
What followed after the game should be a lesson for horse racing when it comes to controversy and our game's “umpires” – the stewards. The baseball umpires didn't lock their doors and avoid the media, permitting them and the public to speculate on why a called out at home plate suddenly was turned into the winning run. They didn't issue a terse statement explaining the rule and what they saw.
Instead, Major League Baseball held a press conference, brought out the chief of that game's umpiring crew, the two umpires directly involved in the call, and Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.
They explained the rule. They explained what they saw, and how they interpreted the rule in that instance. They answered questions from the media. There was complete transparency.
Let's contrast this to what happened at Gulfstream Park last Saturday, when a disqualification in the day's final event cost an unnamed horseplayer a $1.66-million payday in the track's Rainbow 6 jackpot bet.
According to Andy Beyer, writing in the Washington Post, stewards who made the call refused to talk about it, instead issuing a two sentence statement that read: “A horse must maintain a straight path down the lane so as not to impede, interfere or intimidate another horse. [Collinito] did not maintain a straight path and was not clear and put the other horse on his heels, forcing the jockey to stop riding twice and possibly costing him a position.”
There was no further explanation, no opportunity to ask questions about the incident, no video replays with the stewards explaining how and where the first-place finisher, Collinito, may have cost runner-up Strategic Keeper the win.
The public was left to speculate, and their imagination ran wild. While the biggest loser was the horseplayer who saw a potentially life-changing score disappear, Gulfstream Park and the sport itself suffered from the lack of transparency.
I'm not going to speculate about whether the call was good or bad. I don't know what the regulations are in Florida, or if there are specific rules pertaining to what should lead to a disqualification. In some racing jurisdictions, a foul is a foul whether or not it costs the affected horse a placing. In most states, it's left to the stewards' discretion to determine that, and they rule accordingly.
This was a teachable moment, and it is hoped that Gulfstream Park and other tracks learn from it. Stewards may work for the racing association or the state (in this case, two stewards are employed by Gulfstream Park and the third is appointed by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering), but they are accountable to those with a vested interest in the game: horse owners, trainers, jockeys, and the horseplayers whose wagering dollars drive the sport.
Do we need a press conference every time there is an inquiry or an objection in a race? Of course not. That's not practical. But stewards can not and should not be allowed to sequester themselves after something of this magnitude occurs.
￼￼￼Furthermore, why not take a lead from California, where stewards are required to file a weekly report that is posted on the California Horse Racing Board website? Whether you agree or disagree with their decision (and, let's face it, many of these cases boil down to judgment calls), you at least know why they took the action they did.
There is a significant difference between Major League Baseball and horse racing. One has structure, a league office, and national rules, and the other has none of those things. But Gulfstream Park and its owner, The Stronach Group, have made an enormous commitment to horse racing, have a mission that focuses on integrity, and have shown leadership in other aspects of the sport. This is an area where they can set a new standard for excellence and build confidence in their customer base.