Muddled rules put stewards on spot

May 17, 2002|By Bennett Liebman

ALBANY, N.Y. - When you watch the Preakness tomorrow, keep in mind the rules of horse racing.

What rules?

Good question. Horse racing is a sport in which the rules are badly in need of clarification. In reality, the rules are whatever the track stewards say they are. The rulebook gives us nothing.

There is no uniformity in how stewards do their jobs, no uniformity of practice and no philosophical rationale underlying the role of the stewards who are racing's equivalent of baseball's umpires.

The stewards are the panel of three individuals who oversee racing at a track. They determine whether a foul has been committed in a horse race and whether to disqualify a horse. In most states, the stewards are appointed by a combination of the state racing commission and the racetracks. In Maryland, all stewards are appointed by the racing commission.

When two horses bump each other constantly through the stretch, what degree of fault justifies disqualification? Is it 51 percent, 75 percent or 100 percent? Or should you disqualify the horse that initiated the bumping? We simply have no answers for racing fans.

We also have no idea from a philosophical standpoint whom the rules are supposed to protect. Are we trying to protect the horses, the riders, the owners or the fans? And what are we protecting these interests from - intentional acts, recklessness, negligence, or acts perpetrated without any fault?

In racing, stewards are appointed and told, "You're on your own." They are given almost no guidance, no set of standards or best practices.

In New York, a steward is expected to call a foul whether or not the foul affects the outcome of a race. This is the Gertrude Stein rule: A foul is a foul is a foul. Other jurisdictions now use a two-part approach. Was there a foul, and did the foul affect a placing? Great Britain has gone to a complex system in which stewards balance the jockey's culpability in causing the foul, the significance of the foul and the effect on the placement of the horse that caused the foul. Uniformity is nonexistent.

As you watch the starting gate, keep in mind an unwritten rule called "hazards of the start." Stewards give a break to incidents at the beginning of a horse race. But what does this mean? For how many strides out of the gate does this "break" apply? We simply don't know.

Another question stewards face is what to do when a rider inadvertently strikes another horse with his or her whip. This resulted in a disqualification on the Kentucky Derby undercard in the Churchill Downs Handicap when the horse that placed first was disqualified and placed behind the horse that been struck by the whip. There are no written rules on this, but the practice has been to disqualify the horse ridden by the offending rider.

Nonetheless, there are now some jurisdictions where the horse is not disqualified if the rider of the offended horse ran the horse into the whip. Again, we have no uniformity in racing practices.

The rules have been benignly neglected in horse racing for centuries. This may have been understandable when all bets were made at the track. Today, when interstate and international wagering on races from the home is becoming the norm, these rules - or the lack thereof - are totally unacceptable. The stewards aren't the cause of these problems. They are very much its victims. They have been left to fend for themselves.

But there is no reason for the stewards to remain victims. They need to take the lead in this area. They should initiate the process to establish standards and best practices for their craft and to demonstrate that there is more to racing stewardship than subjective judgment.

In baseball, a pitch has to be over the plate to be called a strike. You can evaluate whether an umpire has a wide strike zone or a narrow strike zone and whether he is being consistent in his calls. In racing, we can't even do that. We don't even have a home plate. We have nothing.

Bennett Liebman coordinates the Program in Racing and Wagering Law at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y.

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