Stewards get power, owners get break as commission loosens disciplinary reins

HORSE RACING

October 13, 1991|By MARTY McGEE

Once in a while, reason prevails.

The Maryland Racing Commission apparently has found a means to avoid the absolute insurer rule. The rule, upheld in court in recent years, has sent bewildered trainers to the sidelines for offenses they swore they had nothing to do with or were helpless to prevent.

The commission gave preliminary approval last week for more discretionary powers to the stewards and judges (and to themselves in cases of appeal) in cases of drug and rules infractions. In lieu of hard-and-fast penalty schedules, the change, which would become effective in early 1992, will allow officials to take into account circumstances and the background of those involved before disciplining them.

The move would give more authority to the officials, which can certainly be a dangerous thing. Already, the collective opinion of stewards and judges play critical roles in day-to-day racing events.

"It'll be good, but only if they play it fair," said John "Jerry" Robb, an outspoken trainer and director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Clinton P. Pitts Jr., chief steward, acknowledged the perceptions held by some bettors and horsemen: Stewards play favorites, and such favoritism could be taken to greater heights.

"I know all about how [Bill] Passmore had the green light to do anything he wanted when he was riding, and how [Kent] Desormeaux had it and how [Donnie] Miller had it when they were here," said Pitts. "That's human nature for people to think that way, that this person got this penalty because he's so-and-so, and that person got that penalty because he's somebody else.

"I can assure you that each case will be treated on its merits. I'd certainly like to think we will be as fair and equitable as ever."

The new way in dealing with some of racing's most complex issues is a preferable option to the old way, which had a highly respected trainer such as Charlie Hadry serving a 15-day suspension for an innocuous offense. Other trainers such as Dale Capuano, King Leatherbury and Carlos Garcia have been highly critical of the current system. Sure, power can be a perilous thing -- but then, in some previous cases, the alternative has been mislaid justice.

*

That triple dead-heat in the last race at Belmont Park on Monday was just the 19th in North America since 1940.

There was a dead-heat at Pimlico Race Course last Sunday, and although there are no records on such trivialities, one aspect of it may make it even more unusual than Belmont's.

In the eighth race, Runaway Apache and Gala Road Runner finished behind Legal Choice and Holme Glory, who finished in a dead-heat for first.

In their previous meeting, on Sept. 13, Runaway Apache and Gala Road Runner finished behind Pukka Pride and Game Message -- who also finished in a dead-heat for first.

Have you ever heard of a horse (or horses) finishing behind

dead-heat winners in back-to-back races? Ever?

*

Carlos Garcia, who saddled the most winners at the recent Pimlico meet, said jokingly that the title "only means I have too many claimers." Then, on a more serious note: "It's a nice thing to win."

The training crown, Garcia's first, came none too soon for one of the most respected trainers on the circuit. Last year, Garcia finished in a tie for fourth nationally in stakes victories, and his latest feat proves -- for those who didn't already know -- that he

belongs on a list of Maryland's best horsemen.

The last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Sprint have not been pretty. A rough start in the 1989 Sprint virtually eliminated half the field and caused the favorite, On The Line, to be pulled up with an injury that proved fatal several months later. Last year, Mr. Nickerson suffered a ruptured aorta in mid-race and died; Shaker Knit fell over him and was so badly injured that he had to be destroyed.

So, Jay Hovdey, columnist for The Racing Times, suggested -- tongue-in-cheek, of course -- that the wagering format for this year's Sprint be win, place, show . . . and finish.

*

The final round of the annual World Series of Handicapping is set for next weekend. The $187,500, three-program tournament at Penn National Race Course is the best of its kind this side of Las Vegas.

Six preliminary rounds whittle the field to 150, including about 20 media representatives who receive byes to the final. But some poor fellows won't be able to shoot for the $100,000 first prize this year -- they have to cover the Laurel Turf Festival.

/# Aw, who needs $100,000, anyway?

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