The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Inquiring Minds Want to Know

by | 03.16.2011 | 9:05am

In the first of a two-part interview, California Horse Racing Board steward Scott Chaney talked about the controversial running of the March 5 Santa Anita Handicap, when heavy favorite Twirling Candy was involved in bumping incident at the top of the stretch with eventual winner Game On Dude and runner-up Setsuko. The original order of finish was allowed to stand in a 2-1 vote by the stewards. It was widely criticized in the media and booed by many fans on hand at the track, but a poll of Paulick Report readers supported the non-DQ by a 3-2 margin.

In this week's Breeders' Cup Forum, Chaney discusses the nuts and bolts of inquiries: how they are called, what resources are used, and how the three stewards deliberate and vote, in addition to other duties he and his fellow officials have. The 38-year-old native of Maryland, a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California law school, has been in the stewards' booth since 2004. Prior to that, he worked as an assistant trainer to Darrell Vienna for eight years, and groomed Thoroughbreds and walked hots during his time at USC. (Click here for part one of the interview.)

First, let me ask you about possible conflict of interest involving Darrell Vienna, for whom you worked for many years. Can you be objective with your former boss?
If there was a specific hearing involving Darrell, I might recuse myself. With respect to inquiries (involving a Vienna-trained horse), you never know when they're going to happen and it isn't practical to recuse myself from that. Darrell's feeling is that he's fearful that I'll go the other way (ruling against Vienna) to demonstrate my independence.

More generally, stewards almost always have some conflict. In order to find out about the industry, you're going to have prior experience that could be seen by someone as a conflict of interest.

What sets the wheels in motion for an inquiry?
Every race we could hang the inquiry sign for some reason. The subjective nature of our job begins right then: when do you hang the inquiry sign? For the most part we do when there's significant interference or when it's unclear and the public should look at it. Any of the three of us can call an inquiry. We have come to the understanding that if anyone wants to hang it, we just do. We don't vote on whether to have an inquiry.

When I first started, there would be some discussion, but in the end we thought that was the wrong thing. If one person has it in their mind, it's probably the way the public would feel, so we just take a look at it.

Jockeys or trainers can also file an objection, right?
Occasionally we'll get a trainer's or jockey's objection. They don't happen that often. If it's something obvious, we'll have made it a steward's inquiry anyways.  We've got trainers now that will call in an objection from home from time to time. At some tracks there is a phone (directly to the stewards) in the trainers lounge.

Do patrol judges initiate inquiries?
Not very often, and some states have eliminated patrol judges altogether, especially where we have better film patrols. Their job is to alert us to something they believe may have happened, add a little information to the inquiry. We would never make a decision on their testimony alone.

Are there automatic inquiries? For example, when a horse doesn't leave the starting gate, or there's a spill.

Yes. If a horse loses its rider, breaks through the gate early, stands in the gate, or if the gate doesn't open, those are automatic. We don't call an inquiry if a horse breaks down and is by himself when that happens.

What's the process of a “typical” inquiry?
The nuts and bolts are we'll call the track announcer to tell him to make an announcement. We'll call placing judges and the TV department to post a notice of the inquiry. One of us will call the winner's circle to indicate which jockeys we want to talk to. Another one of us communicates with the TV department to say what we want to look at in the films.

Different tracks have different mechanisms, but we'll have a line of communications with the TV department: go fast, slow, back it up — each of us says what we want to see. We'll watch it a couple of times before anyone says anything. Then we'll start discussing what we see. One person talks to the jockey, and they're on speakerphone so we all hear what the riders have to say. Occasionally we'll have to use a translator — sometimes a jockey's valet or clerk of scales.

There are people who think we shouldn't talk to the riders, but more information never hurts. It doesn't unduly delay the process. Occasionally they'll give us information that is useful, like “I was out of horse” or might point out something one of us hadn't considered.  

I would think you've probably heard some interesting excuses from jockeys.
Different jockeys build up credibility over time. If it's never their fault or they give us a bogus recount of what happened, they have less credibility. You'll have riders who are more honest, and those riders build up credibility with the stewards. We also consider motivation: who is friends with who in the jockeys room. All of those things come into play.

Do the habits or tendencies of a jockey carry over from one race to another? Some riders tend to drift out more, use left-handed whip, etc.
You try and divorce that from an inquiry, as a standalone. At Fairplex Park, Martin Pedroza has a habit of drifting out approaching the turns.  Corey Nakatani drifts out turning for home. Rafael Bejarano has a hard time keeping a straight course down the stretch. They are in our notes all the time (available here at the CHRB website). You try to throw out those things, but we're human beings.

What other resources are used?
We'll use the photo finish and placing judges to some extent. In California we decide if interference cost a horse a placing, so we call to get the margins of a race. If the fourth-place finisher was cost third, we'll call and ask what the margin was. We consider ourselves, our experience, a resource as well.

And then we vote. In 80-90% of inquiries there is not a formal vote. We all agree, and there's not too much discussion. “No change for me” or “we've got to take the horse down.” In 10-15% of the tough ones, there's an actual vote.

Our rule in California allows us to do what we want: the stewards “may” disqualify the horse. Over time the wagering public and horsemen seem to respond better to leaving it alone than reversing it on those tough calls. Over time people prefer that. I don't know that that is every steward's philosophy.

I'm sure you followed the Life At Ten incident and the subsequent investigation from last year's Breeders' Cup. Do you have HRTV, TVG, or ESPN on in the stewards room during the races? Do you pay attention to anything said there?  If the 2010 Breeders' Cup had been in California and you heard John Velazquez say his horse wasn't warming up normally, what would you have done?
It depends. On big days we would have ESPN or some other network on. We're fans and enjoy the coverage. Day to day, sometimes we do have HRTV or TVG on, sometimes we don't. If we have an inquiry, we'll turn the sound down right away. My fellow stewards make fun of me because I like to turn it on after we make the decision. They think I'm a masochist. If Gary Stevens (Hall of Fame jockey and current HRTV analyst) disagrees, we'll get a lot more mail from the public.

If I heard John Velazquez say my horse isn't warming up right, it's an easy call. We call the track veterinarian. Amy Zimmerman (HRTV producer who was working for ESPN at the Breeders' Cup and called the stewards about the Velazquez interview) will call us on things occasionally and we'll tell the vets. There is nothing worse than having a piece of information and not doing something with it. I'm virtually certain that horse would have been scratched in California.

If Amy had called, we would have passed that information on to the vet.

How do you feel about stewards going on camera to explain with a telestrator why they made a call one way or the other after an inquiry or objection?

That's an interesting question. I think in Southern California there used to be a telestrator, but for some reason that technology fell out of favor. I will say that one of us will talk with the track announcer and be in the booth with him as he gives the explanation. I'm not crazy about having the stewards give the explanation rather than the track announcer because we aren't trained in media or announcing. If we fumble around with the explanation, we could make our decision not look as credible. If Trevor Denman says this is what happened, people might believe him more than if we said it. But we do try to be transparent. I do a Friday morning show (“Hold All Tickets”) on HRTV every week to go over inquiries.

What other duties do you and the other stewards have throughout the week?
In the mornings from nine o'clock until first post we have hearings, ranging from post-race drug positives to minor violations (things like tampering with smoke detectors in the barns). We adjudicate all complaints. We oversee entries and scratches. In a more general sense stewards are in charge of interpreting rules, mediating disputes. The rules say we are in charge of racing “in every particular.” Our duties run the gamut. Certain hearings are set up the day before, some things come up that are not scheduled.

We call in jockeys on many mornings. There might not be an inquiry, but about 20% of the time these meetings result in a suspension. We think of ourselves as managing the jockey colony and try to cut off problems before they occur.

Your job is to enforce and interpret the rules. But if you could make one change to racing, what would that be?
I'm a big advocate of whip reform. There is too much whipping in horse racing. In some ways in order to promote the sport and get new fans we have to change that old mentality of “this is how we do it.” Hitting a horse with a whip is one of those things.

There is work being done on whip reform, but it's surprisingly slow going.

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