Who’s Judging the Judges?
A couple of weeks ago, while watching the finale of the June 21 twilight card at Belmont Park on television, I was quite surprised when the stewards failed to light the inquiry sign after Love Is Key Kaz edged Snit Fit by a nose after drifting out several paths in the race to the wire.
Rajiv Maragh, the rider of Snit Fit, did clam foul against Guillermo Rodriguez and Love Is Key Kaz, and after a fairly long delay the stewards ruled there was interference and Love Is Key Kaz was disqualified and placed second. Here is the official chart of the race: It's worth reading just for the Equibase chart caller's descriptive prose (Love Is Key Kaz was “directed to look his nearest threat in the eye a furlong out, came out several paths carrying out his main danger battling head to head, had the rider elbow the rider of Snit Fit as they came together inside the sixteenth pole and just held on.”)
I had no bet or rooting interest in this maiden claiming race, but as a casual observer it seemed pretty obvious while watching the live pan shot that there was enough going on for there to be an inquiry. Simply put, though they eventually got it right, I felt the stewards weren't doing their job.
I even sent out an impetuous Tweet (@raypaulick): “Seriously, shouldn't stewards be fined for not calling inquiry in Belmont Park finale? Couldn't have been much more obvious.”
I didn't think much more about it until controversy erupted last Sunday over a non-disqualification in the sixth race at Betfair Hollywood Park. I wasn't watching the races at the time but saw outrage on Twitter and other social media and later looked at the replay. It featured So She Dances, who stumbled at the start and threw Joe Talamo to the ground (he walked away unhurt), rallying riderless to the wire and drifting in, just as the eventual winner and second-place finisher (Miss Radiance and Ubelongtomemissy, respectively) were drifting out under left-handed urging. A fast-finishing Branding, ridden by Gary Stevens, had to take up sharply as the path in front of her closed, and she wound up fourth.
The stewards called for an inquiry into the incident at the start but it took a claim of foul by Stevens to have them look at the interference in deep stretch. Stewards ruled no change because they believed the incident happened too close to the finish to cost Branding a better placing than fourth.
Many disagreed with that interpretation, including me. In the end, however, the decision not to disqualify the winner was a judgment call.
What I don't get, just as I didn't understand why an obvious foul in deep stretch didn't warrant an inquiry at Belmont Park, is why it took a claim of foul by Stevens for the stewards to at least look at the incident.
And that begs the question: Who is judging the judges? Is someone at regulatory agencies like the newly formed New York State Gaming Commission or the California Horse Racing Board paying attention to the performances of the men and women handling these very important duties.
We know (from personal experience) that no one is perfect and errors will happen. That applies to racing officials, too. Here and here are a couple of examples of how mistakes (not judgment calls) in the stewards' booth have been handled in different jurisdictions.
There should be more accountability. Horseplayers and horsemen deserve competence and consistency from racing officials. It would be nice for horseplayers and horsemen to know that someone is judging the performance of stewards.