The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Stewarding The Big Cap

by | 03.09.2011 | 8:28am

There is something Wizard of Oz-like about racing stewards. Like the Wizard, stewards are all powerful, possessing the ability to change the fortunes of horseplayers, jockeys, owners and trainers with a single judgment call. And like the Great Oz, they operate, figuratively speaking, behind a curtain, in a small room high above the racetrack, and are seldom seen. Though they may be among the most influential men or women at the racetrack, many stewards could walk through the grandstand anonymously to anyone other than horsemen who have had to deal with them from time to time.

Scott Chaney is one of three officials, along with Tom Ward and Kim Sawyer, currently working as California Horse Racing Board stewards in Southern California. A fourth member of their team is former jockey Luis Jauragui, who fills a backup role as safety steward.

Chaney, 38, is a native of Maryland and Ivy League educated. He graduated from Dartmouth College and later the University of Southern California School of Law. He passed the bar and is licensed but has never practiced law.

His interest in racing began through his parents, who owned horses in Maryland. During law school, he went to work at Southern California racetracks, hotwalking, grooming and eventually getting his assistant trainer's license. He spent eight years working full-time for trainer Darrell Vienna, a fellow lawyer, before deciding to change careers and applying for a job as a steward. He took the stewards test and was hired shortly thereafter, working first in Northern California in 2004 and later moved to the Southern California circuit.

Chaney spoke on a broad range of subjects with the Paulick Report, including Saturday's controversial Santa Anita Handicap — when eventual winner Game On Dude, heavy favorite Twirling Candy and runner-up Setsuko were involved in a major bumping incident at the top of the stretch. The decision to leave the original order of finish has been widely debated and criticized.

Next week, the Breeders' Cup Forum with Chaney will focus on the process of inquiries: how they are called, what resources are used, how the stewards deliberate and vote, and other duties the stewards have. Because of the ongoing interest in Saturday's Big Cap, however, we are presenting that portion of the interview first.

Let's talk about the Santa Anita Handicap and some of the comments that have come out of it. First, do you judge a Grade 1 race the same way you would a minor claiming event?
Yes, the rules we apply are the same. The wagering public may think we take whatever action seems like the best solution. But we use exactly the same rules and analysis on an $8,000 claiming race as we did in the Santa Anita Handicap.

How difficult a call was that race for you to make?
For me, it was really tough. I didn't think there was any question that Twirling Candy came in and started the contact. For me the hard question was whether Game On Dude drifted out at all. Before contact, he may have drifted out, but only an inch or two.

Are stewards using any new technology, are you still holding a pencil up to the TV screen to gauge if a horse is running straight, or following the harrow marks on the racetrack?
The cameras are better than they used be, and high definition television helps. We're looking at harrow marks, we still do that. In the Santa Anita Handicap, Game On Dude maintained a straight course. Visually, Chantal Sutherland hitting (Game On Dude) left-handed and the horse getting turned makes it look like he was getting out. That's one of those nuance things: once a horse gets turned, it's virtually impossible to keep a straight course.

What about the outside horse, Setsuko? Did you fault him at all?
I would say the outside horse drifted in a little turning for home. There was minor contact as the two horses drifted out to him. We probably wouldn't have looked at that at all if the subsequent bumping didn't take place.

Victor Espinosa (aboard Setsuko) was pretty adamant about what he thought happened. He felt he was fouled by both horses to his inside. But his testimony was coming from the film he watched, because during the race he couldn't tell if Game On Dude or Twirling Candy initiated the contact. Of course, if Twirling Candy was the only one responsible, it wouldn't have moved Victor's horse up to first. He needed us to disqualify Game On Dude.

The three stewards were split, with you and Tom Ward voting for no change. Why did Kim Sawyer vote for a disqualification?
Her feeling was that the contact between Twirling Candy and Game On Dude was 50/50, that they met in the middle and caused all the interference. She felt both should have been disqualified, that they were both to blame and interfered with Setsuko.

A third position would have been that it was Game On Dude's fault 100%.

How unusual is a split vote?
I used to want a unanimous decision, but I no longer think that's necessary. In this case, I was a fence-sitter. I was in an awkward position of being the swing vote. I was the last one to vote, and it was extremely difficult. I thought it could really go either way, which in some ways led to the decision to leave it alone.

Were any of the jockeys involved in the incident called in the next morning to review the films?

We didn't call any of them in on that race. We thought the inside horse was going straight. We wondered at first if we should talk to Joel (Rosario), aboard Twirling Candy. We felt his horse was getting tired and a little erratic – but that was not Joel's fault. It was the horse.  At the end of the day we blame the horses, not the jocks on this one.

Once the announcement was made not to change the order of finish, were you surprised by the negative reaction?
Initially there was a big cheer. Then the boos started. I suspected everyone booing didn't have the 30-1 shot to win. For me I think that was more that it's fun to boo. Plus the 1-2 favorite finishing fifth, a lot of them might have felt there should have been some justice.

One thing that's added to the controversy was Bob Baffert picking up the phone outside the winner's circle and calling the stewards while you were deliberating. Is it unusual for a trainer to call when it's an inquiry, rather than an objection from a trainer?
Yes, that's extremely unusual. Trainers can lodge an objection. When he called and we realized it was him, we said we're not going to talk to you and hung up. We called him in the next day and admonished him. It's not a practice of ours and we told him we didn't want that to happen again, and he understood. There was some perception he got on the phone and told us how we should rule on the inquiry.  That didn't happen.

Next week: More with Scott Chaney about the behind-the-scenes process that takes place during an inquiry and what other duties stewards have throughout the week.

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