It's often true that major change in horse racing is reactive more than proactive, that one watershed event prompts change that heretofore seemed less necessary. Some in American horse racing are left wondering whether this year's Kentucky Derby will be that moment for stewarding in U.S. races.
That was certainly the message from the International Harmonisation of Racing Rules Committee at a public meeting Aug. 9 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The committee is part of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, which behaves similarly to the Association of Racing Commissioners International – setting recommendations for racing rules and best practices on equine welfare, safety, and sport integrity – on an international scale.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the world was more divided on the question of when interference in a race should result in disqualification. IFHA countries either adhere to Category 1 or Category 2 philosophies when it comes to disqualifications. In Category 2 rules, which prevail in the United States and Canada, a horse is taken down if stewards determine he committed a foul costing another horse its best placing. In Category 1 rules, adopted in virtually every other racing jurisdiction, stewards do not take a horse down unless they believe the horse that was impeded would have finished ahead of the offending horse. Commonly, proponents of Category 1 – including the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, an independent horse racing think tank – refer to this philosophy as meaning '”the best horse wins.”
Kim Kelly, chief steward of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said the watershed moment for British racing on Category 1 versus 2 came after the 1988 Ascot Gold Cup, when a horse named Royal Gait bumped rival El Conquistador, who unseated his rider. Royal Gait broke the track record but was disqualified and placed off the board for the interference.
In the 2010 Japan Cup, betting favorite Buena Vista sailed past the runner-up but was disqualified for interference with that horse (who was widely considered a weaker rival) to what was called “worldwide condemnation.”
Kelly, a proponent of the Category 1 rules, drew a comparison between those events and this year's Kentucky Derby. Under Category 2 rules, Kelly said the Kentucky stewards applied the rules fairly as they were written; Maximum Security did commit a foul and had to be taken down as a result. But under Category 1 rules, Maximum Security would likely not have been taken down because in Kelly's judgment, the horses he fouled did not seem poised to beat him, foul or no foul. Country House, the named winner, seemed to get an opportunity to face Maximum Security despite being knocked off balance on the turn and still weakened.
Kelly argued that stewards' jobs in Category 1 are considerably more straightforward than in Category 2.
“The only two questions [the stewards] have to ask is 'Did interference occur?'” said Kelly. “The only other question is 'Would this horse have finished in front of that horse [without it]?'”
The audience for the discussion, which was open to the public, was mostly comprised of American racing stakeholders and officials, and they had questions. How, a few asked, is the “best horse” determined – is the most heavily favored horse given the benefit of the doubt in a messy stretch call?
No, responded Kelly. Instead, the decision is based on how the affected horses are traveling. Stewards should be looking at which horses were traveling most easily before the incident, whether jockeys were asking their mounts for more, and what margins were like before interference.
What about cases where affected horses finish the race at a close margin? How are stewards supposed to decide which was the likely winner then?
“If it's a 50/50, then the go-to position would be to leave the finish positions as they are,” said Kelly. “The decision of the steward, whether it be Category 1 or it be Category 2, is subjective. It has to be. That happens under either category but the level the stewards have to adhere to is they have to be 'comfortably satisfied' that if horse A didn't interfere with horse B that horse B would have finished better.”
Some in the audience expressed concerns about whether Category 1 standards would make it more difficult for officials to make disqualification decisions away from first and second place, since it might be hard to infer where an offended fifth-place finisher would have crossed the wire if not for interference. That could have big implications for connections competing for a big purse, or for horseplayers with exotic wager tickets.
Some also worried about whether Category 1 would encourage rough riding, since a jockey on a superior horse may reasonably assume he'd be more likely to survive an inquiry. Kelly pointed to a provision in the international standard allowing stewards to disqualify a horse, regardless of superiority, if the jockey engaged in “dangerous” riding. Additionally, jurisdictions like France increased maximum fines and maximum lengths for rider suspensions at the time of the Category 1 change, and can still give out rider suspension even if there is no disqualification.
“I'm thinking from the perspective of the industry, if you're going to change, it could cause consternation,” said Terry Meyocks, president/CEO of the Jockeys' Guild. “I think it would be good for taking subjectivity out of it and adding more consistency. I'm not so sure about the fines [being increased]. We're going through other cases where the fines are already getting out of control for something the horse did, rather than something the jock did. I think getting over the initial hurdle.
“I think [rough riding] should be handled by the stewards, no matter what. From the first day of the meet, that should be handled.”
Tom Sage of the Nebraska Racing Commission pointed out that at tracks with smaller purses, a jockey may consider it worthwhile to ride aggressively to win a stakes purse and then sit out for longer, missing days with more menial payoffs.
In Japan, where Category 1 was enacted several years ago, officials say their riding penalties held relatively steady at 38 the year before the change and 34 after. France Galop's Henri Pouret said the country has experienced no serious uptick in aggressive riding.
Pouret also admitted the transition isn't an easy one – France Galop put forth the proposed change to French stewards, most of whom were against a transition to Category 1. The France Galop board voted to make the change anyhow (memories of bettor outrage over Dar Re Mi's disqualification in the 2009 Prix Vermeille still fresh). One board member, Pouret remembered, resigned in demonstration of his outrage. He recently had dinner with the former board member who told him, “I thought the races would become unpredictable … I was wrong.”
“In the front page today in the main racing journal in France there is a comment made by editor in chief pleading the French trotting association adopt the same philosophy,” Pouret noted.
At least some horseplayers and fans support the Category 1 system, as the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation has detailed extensively since before the Derby snafu. Handle data in countries which have switched to Category 1 suggests bettors are not put off by the switch, turnover held steady or increased. Despite testimony from IFHA committee representatives from Hong Kong, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore and others, the American racing stakeholders in the room were hesitant to take up the mantle of Category 1.
“I'm trying to broaden my knowledge of the Category 1,” said Erinn Higgins, New York State Gaming Commission steward for Finger Lakes. “Obviously all I know is Category 2. I think it's an interesting topic. I think I'm not sold on it, I'll be honest. Our goal is to look out for the owners, the trainers, the betting public, but we're also looking out for the guys that don't finish first. We're looking out for the guys that finish second and third.
“I think no matter what you do, 50 percent of the people are going to be happy and 50 percent are going to be mad. If you didn't get DQ'd, you're going to be happy about it. Regardless of the category, there's always going to be people who are ticked off at the stewards' decision.”
Mike Hopkins, executive director at the Maryland Racing Commission, sounded a little more favorable, but cautioned such a change would need to be made thoughtfully and gradually.
“I think Kim Kelly makes some great arguments,” said Hopkins. “I think it's going to be a huge culture change, not only for regulators and stewards and judges but I think it should be inclusive of all breeds. I think it's something that will take a while to talk about it, to convince people. I still have some issues with it because I've been involved in the Category 2 way for so long. I'm not quite convinced yet.”
Elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region, Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission executive director John Wayne remained unconvinced.
“I like the way we're doing it now,” said Wayne. “I'm not so worried about costing the big punters, I'm worried about what's fair, what's best, what's good for the health and welfare of the horse, the jockey. Do you reward bad race-riding? No, you don't.
“Every incident is different. I think we hire stewards to make those assessments.”
Kelly made a presentation at Sunday's Jockey Club Round Table Conference on the issue.
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