Steward’s Transparency After Controversial Big Cap Best Call of All

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Nick Kling of The Troy Record…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Time for Transparency

The 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap will not be remembered because it was won by a great horse. Nor will it go down in history because of a track-record time. What makes last Saturday’s race notable is the controversy surrounding the outcome.

The short version is this. Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko entered the stretch of the one and one-quarter mile classic in a virtual line. A combination of jockey actions and tiring horses initiated chain-reaction bumping. As a result, favored Twirling Candy surrendered in upper stretch, while the other pair engaged in a slug-fest to the finish line. Game On Dude won by a nose, earning a Grade 1 victory for himself and $450,000 for his connections.

The Santa Anita stewards hung up the inquiry sign and took twelve minutes to determine there would be no disqualification. That decision ignited a controversy and may be challenged on appeal by the connections of Setsuko.

Nevertheless, whether the non-disqualification was correct is not of immediate relevance. What is important is what the three stewards did in the aftermath. They talked about what they had done.

On Sunday, Daily Racing Form (DRF) reported comments made by the stewards, describing their thoughts in reviewing the inquiry. DRF also reported the stewards had voted 2-1 to keep the result as it stood and not disqualify Game On Dude. Included was the name of each of the stewards and how they had voted.

Here is an example. Steward Scott Chaney said, “We held (Setsuko) blameless, and he was clearly interfered with. So the question was, who’s to blame – the inside horse (Game on Dude) or the middle horse (Twirling Candy)? (Twirling Candy) initiated contact. Our determination was (Game on Dude) maintained a straight course.”

Steward Kim Stanley saw it differently. She said, “Twirling Candy and (Game on Dude) I felt had equal contact, and (Setsuko) was the one that got bothered. I think they came in, and out, equal amounts and they bumped into (Setsuko).”

DRF reported, “Chaney and (steward Tom) Ward voted to make no change, while Sawyer argued for a disqualification.”

Transparency like this is rarely seen in Thoroughbred racing. With occasional exceptions, stewards at most venues have had a simple philosophy regarding the public’s right to know — ‘Tough luck, sucker.’

Despite being stonewalled time and again, bettors and horsemen have continued to clamor for accountability. In this era of open government and unfettered information, they say, it is unconscionable Thoroughbred racing hides decisions which determine the outcome of millions of dollars risked by the public.

New York racing took a baby step in the right direction in 2010. Stewards at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks began to post a brief, cryptic description of some of their decisions. Here is an example of a recent posting, which I found at the ‘Steward’s Corner’ link on the NYRA website ( It said:

“RACE 10: Jockey objection for alleged interference in the deep stretch run the #8 Norman Asbjornson (J Pimentel) against #5 Stay Thirsty (R Dominguez). The #8 claims that the #5 drifts in, causing him to alter his course. After reviewing the films the race is official as is.”

To be fair, there have been some NYRA stewards’ postings with more detail. However, I have yet to see one which itemizes how the stewards voted, by name or otherwise, nor any elaboration of why or why not a decision was made.

You might ask why this is important. That’s easy. Many incidents are not cut-and-dried. There can be issues with camera angles, jockey actions and intentions, whether a horse was tiring or had equipment problems, and the like.

I know of an incident at Saratoga last summer where a non-disqualification inflamed bettors needlessly. The jockey on the affected horse believed his mount was out of gas and I strongly suspect that’s what he told the stewards. If the public had been so informed, some of their ire would have been quelled.

There can be a whole host of reasons why something happens. Less debatable is the impact of the stewards’ decisions on bettors, owners, and trainers. No matter how they rule, a large number of people are going to be upset. When evidence is razor thin, as in the Santa Anita Handicap, tempers flare.

Nevertheless, the uproar at Santa Anita would have been far worse without the willingness of the California stewards to discuss their reasoning.

After watching the head-on replay several times, I concluded the stewards made the wrong decision. After reading Cheney’s comments I went back and looked again, this time trying to draw a mental line of the path being followed by each horse. I discovered there is merit to Cheney’s statement Game On Dude held a straight course. I may still believe a disqualification was warranted, but at least my room for doubt was expanded a notch or two.

There is a procedural difference between California and New York racing. Santa Anita stewards are state employees. A single body can determine their work rules. Individual New York stewards are selected by three different bodies: the state racing and wagering board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there is no statute stopping the state racing board from directing the stewards to issue more detailed public reports. I applaud the board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club, for doing something last year, but the time has come for more.

If members of the state legislature voted on issues of public spending and hid their votes it would be a scandal. Why, then, should racetrack stewards be allowed to adjudicate a billion dollar industry in secrecy?

New York bettors and horsemen should no longer be treated like mushrooms — covered up and kept in the dark.

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