Tough Call: For Stewards, Officiating The Derby A Tall Order

by | 05.04.2016 | 6:59pm

When the stewards take their places on the seventh floor at Churchill Downs this Saturday, their goal will be to treat the day's races (including the one heading to the post just after 6 p.m.) just as they would an evening card at Turfway Park.

“Going into the day, we strive to officiate it as every race every day in this state. We don't want to do anything drastically different for any high-profile race than we do the rest of the time,” said Kentucky Chief Steward Barbara Borden.

But of course, the Kentucky Derby isn't just another horse race. With tens of thousands in the stands and millions more watching on television, there's more pressure during this race for the owners, trainers, and jockeys than any other, and that carries over to the stewards' room.

When the field leaves the gates on Saturday, two stewards will watch the race live from the balcony outside the stewards' room, while one will watch the race on the monitors inside. Once the horses cross the finish line, the three will reconvene and discuss what they saw, replaying the pan and head-on shots several times to watch the action of the leading, mid-pack, and trailing horses throughout the 1 ¼ miles. This is also when they take objections from the jockeys, who alert the outriders after the gallop out if they feel they have been wronged.

The primary challenge of officiating the Derby is the size of the field, according to former Kentucky Chief Steward Bernie Hettel. With 20 horses, stewards expect that many or even most runners will have contact with each other at some point. The question is whether contact clearly results in a lower placing for the wronged horse.

In Kentucky, the officiating process can be viewed as two-step: Borden said stewards in the state are not required to take a horse down if it's determined that he fouled a rival. Therefore, stewards must first decide whether a foul took place, and then decide whether the foul was severe enough that it should merit a change in the order of finish. This is why it's not uncommon for stewards to light the 'Stewards' Inquiry' sign and then leave the order of finish unchanged — it takes time to thoroughly review the tape and make each decision.

“There are traffic problems [in the Derby], usually from the first step of the race to the top of the stretch. In most every race, there's some interference or some bumping,” said Hettel, who began his career as a patrol judge in 1974 at Churchill Downs. “I always say this is more a jockey's race than a horse's race. A jockey's move is either well-advised or ill-advised.”

Besides the extra attention at play, it's hard to forget there's also little historical precedent for disqualifying a winner of the Kentucky Derby. In the race's 141-year history, there has been just one stewards' inquiry, one disqualification, and five jockey claims of foul. The lone stewards' inquiry took place in 1984 when fourth-place finisher Gate Dancer was placed fifth behind Fali Time for interference in the stretch. (The other disqualification, the only one in history that impacted the race's winner, is the infamous case of Dancer's Image, who was taken down due to an overage of phenylbutazone.) Besides an objection from rider Sandy Hawley in the Fali Time/Gate Dancer interaction, none of the jockey protests have been upheld by the stewards. The last jockey claim of foul was from John Velazquez in 2001, who lodged an objection against Jorge Chavez and Derby winner Monarchos for interference at the quarter pole.

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron said he's a little surprised there have been relatively few jockey claims of foul in the Derby's history. Although horses have rarely been disqualified from their positions in the race, he doubted the statistics would stop a rider who really felt they'd been wronged from notifying the outrider of a foul claim. Instead, he believes the field size complicates things for riders in this regard, too.

Mike Smith on phone with stewards

Mike Smith on phone with stewards

“I personally have never claimed foul in the Derby,” said McCarron. “A lot of times when there is interference, you're not exactly sure who caused the interference around the first turn and the backside. I always felt that if I was going to lodge an objection, I had to be absolutely certain the stewards would see it my way. I wasn't the kind of jockey to 'take shots,' so to speak. I'm not going to get on the phone with the stewards just hoping that it was something so drastic that they'll make a change.

“Most jockeys are respectful enough of the race that they let the outcome be the outcome, for any placing. They're not going to cry over spilt milk.”

It's not easy to decide whether to lodge a claim in a race because jockeys can't physically see the incident from the stewards' perspective — from the saddle, another rider's move may feel bigger or more lateral than it looks on a replay. Borden said it's not uncommon for stewards to speak with riders in the course of a stewards' inquiry or rider objection and hear them amend their perspective after seeing a replay.

So what would it take for a horse to be taken down in the Derby? There's no blanket answer, but in a 20-horse field, any significant interference would likely come toward the end of the race — something that McCarron said is relatively rare, given how spread out and tired many horses are at the quarter pole. Interference would also have to be pretty clear; Borden said the prevailing philosophy for the current group of stewards is to let a race result stand if they have reasonable doubts about whether a move cost a horse the race. Hettel went to work each Derby morning prepared to disqualify a horse if a situation warranted it, but it's a relief for most stewards working the race to finish the day without incident.  

“I was always hopeful if we had a DQ in the Kentucky Derby that it could be easily explained and have a good picture of it where even the most skeptical mind could understand why we took it down,” said Hettel.

“It helps to have thick skin. People boo umpires when they come out for a baseball game. They don't know them from a lump of coal, but they know they don't like them. It comes with the job. I always took it as professional necessity to make the right call, be it popular or unpopular. It's not a popularity contest.”

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