Stewards got Breeders' Cup Classic decision wrong - but what's next?

Anyone reading this article probably knows that there was a controversial start in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, where eventual winner Bayern veered sharply to his left leaving the starting gate, starting a chain reaction in bumping Shared Belief which resulted in V.E. Day and Moreno being compromised as well. Here’s the start of the race: 

The California stewards assigned to Santa Anita acknowledged that there was interference at this point in the race, referring to California rule #1699 (c) in ruling on the incident. The text of the rule is as follows:

“A horse which interferes with another and thereby causes any other horse to lose stride, ground or position, when such other horse is not at fault and when such interference occurs in a part of the race where the horse interfered with loses the opportunity to place where it might, in the opinion of the Stewards, be reasonably expected to finish, may be disqualified and place behind the horse so interfered with.” 

To me, it is clear that Shared Belief  “lost the opportunity to place where it might, in the opinion of the Stewards, be reasonably expected to finish.” Shared Belief was the 5-to-2 betting favorite in the race, and after being fouled by Bayern shortly after leaving the gate, he then was forced to check behind eventual runner-up Toast of New York. In addition, Moreno and Bayern were the only two early speed horses in the race. With Moreno interfered with at the start, Bayern had an unchallenged lead, thus improving his chances of winning the race, which he did. 

The race was made official, and the bettors were paid their winnings. The stewards made two attempts to explain themselves, one on Saturday evening in a written statement, and a second at a Sunday morning press conference. The Stewards’ explanations seem to contradict both what we saw on television and on replays and the language of California racing rule #1699 (c).

The further consequences of this decision are very severe. The $5 million purse of the Classic will be distributed to the owners, trainers and jockeys according to the official order of finish. Millions of dollars bet on the race were paid to the betting customers as soon as the result was declared official. Shared Belief’s potential for year-end Championship honors seemingly disappeared once the gate opened for the Classic. Clearly the integrity of the running of the race and the view of the betting public who watched and bet on the race were severely compromised.

So what should be undertaken by the racing officials to protect the owners and betting customers in the future?

Let’s start with the stewards. It is important to note that the concerns being raised about the Classic apply to all U.S. racing jurisdictions and perhaps beyond U.S. borders. Don Clippinger penned a very good article in the Paulick Report in August 2013 titled “Here’s who is judging the judges” that provides some excellent background on the role stewards play in racing. 

As Clippinger describes, the Racing Officials Accreditation Program was established in 1991 to coordinate the stewards’ training program. Stewards School is a week-long course of 60 hours incorporating oral and written exams. Most racing jurisdictions require successful completion of Stewards School to become a steward.

However, Mr. Clippinger also notes: “Just about every major sport has a Monday-morning quarterback. The National Football League has several of them, including a vice president of officiating and a director of officiating. Major League Baseball also reviews the calls by its umpires. But racing has no such mechanism for a regular, systematic review of the calls that are being made in the stewards’ stand.

The reasons are obvious. The oversight of racing is fragmented among many state racing jurisdictions, and not all stewards apply the same standards. Some states continue to adhere to the Gertrude Stein school of officiating—a foul is a foul is a foul—while most jurisdictions now follow a more holistic approach and look at whether the incident affected the placings at the finish line.”

Thank you, Mr. Clippinger. Owners are paying millions of dollars to purchase horses and millions are bet by racing customers and they certainly deserve better than this haphazard approach. 

We now know that a steward has had one week of rigorous training and presumably significant experience in the racing industry. However, are there any requirements or tests for stewards regarding the racing laws that the stewards have to enforce? It is important to note that in the case of most racing jurisdictions in the U.S. including California, the stewards are hired and report to the California Horse Racing Board.

It is interesting how much post-race discussion has centered around the intentions of jockeys. People speculated about why the affected riders did not claim foul, and the stewards said they spoke with Martin Garcia, the jockey for Bayern, and Mike Smith, who was aboard Shared Belief. Efforts were being made to speak with Jamie Spencer, the rider of Toast of New York. American baseball and football have both adopted televised reviews by off-site league officials of questionable calls by the game officials. These reviews are conducted expeditiously and definitively and are completely transparent to the television viewer. It would never occur to these officials to speak with a player involved in one of these reviews. A common practice in racing, this would seem to be a tradition from before simulcasting and extensive television coverage of races. What exactly does a steward learn from a jockey in reviewing an incident that is relevant to a decision? Nothing, I would hope. 

Finally, let’s turn to the racing law itself. A racing rule that acknowledges that interference has occurred in a race but gives the stewards the latitude to decide whether it affected the outcome of the race is absurd. In the case of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the stewards acknowledged interference took place in the first few steps of a mile and a quarter race. I would suggest that the way the rule is written attempts to impose clairvoyant skills that the stewards simply cannot and do not possess. The state-by-state racing laws need a substantial legal review and standardization to insure continuity throughout the country. 

The Thoroughbred racing industry is having a difficult time attracting new owners and continues to suffer monthly declines in total betting activity. Bad racing rules that are difficult to apply when millions of dollars are on the line for owners and betting customers too often provide a very bad outcome for Thoroughbred racing. Leaving decisions about the rules of racing in the hands of the individual states will do nothing but guarantee future bad outcomes like the one we saw this weekend.


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