Stewards Continue to Work Toward Elusive Consistency

(Originally published in the January 19, 2019 issue of BloodHorse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Dr. Ted Hill

With the NFL playoffs upon us and the recent announcement that the chief state steward at Turfway Park will explain disqualifications while a replay is televised, I would like to share some thoughts on consistency in the stewards’ stand—or lack thereof.

Fans, and those who cover Thoroughbred racing, have complained about inconsistency relating to interference and disqualifications for decades. In fact, I vividly recall the headline on one such article more than 10 years ago: “Consistently Inconsistent.”

While I agree that consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction remains a challenge, I do believe there is reasonable consistency at any one racecourse among the three regular stewards who have worked together for some period.

Unfortunately, the decisions at one race meet are not likely to be agreed on by stewards around the country, as we have learned from recent surveys. The best hope for improvement in this area is the Racing Officials Accreditation Program (ROAP), where consistency is a point of emphasis for 2019. This topic will be discussed at every continuing education program throughout the year in all regions and will be reinforced with race surveys for stewards to participate in and share their findings.

As hard as our accreditation board and all dedicated stewards strive to achieve consistency, there is no simple solution and there might never be. It’s elusive and will require continuing work.

Of all the duties racing stewards perform daily, nothing generates more debate or causes more dissent than interference decisions. But keep in mind that racing is not alone in that regard.

Anyone watching NFL football this season can appreciate this problem. Pass interference, roughing the passer, and plays involving possession have been confusing for everyone. One would think that the NFL, with its central league office and endless financial and technological resources, would have figured this out years ago. 

Racing also continues to wrestle with officials’ decisions. Our process seems straightforward. There are rules defining interference and how the stewards may enforce them. There are three stewards adjudicating each race, and each has an equal vote.

They review the race films, speak with the jockeys involved, and decide whether the foul warrants a demotion—a change in the final placing. So, their decisions should be reasonably

But here’s the rub. Anyone can rule on an egregious foul that causes a horse to stumble or fall, unseating the jockey or causing him to lose his irons and all chance to finish competitively. You don’t need official training to recognize that.

Most patrons can understand when an action is deemed minor interference with no impact on the race and is dismissed as incidental.

The reality is that all the other incidents that draw an inquiry/objection fall between those extremes and require a judgment decision by the three stewards. Their training and experience must direct them to a reasonable and justifiable determination. No two races are the same, and close examination of all the specifics in the running of the race and factors involved in their decision will affirm this.

Of course, there are some interesting similarities and differences between stewards’ decisions and NFL officials that are worth mentioning.

We both have the benefit of “replay.” However, the number of cameras and angles available on the football field are far superior to those in racing. We lack true “head-on” views of the stretch on many of our turf courses. It’s difficult to be consistent when replay views vary. Not an excuse, but it might be a factor.

Racing commissions could help in this regard by requiring consistency in the tools stewards are provided. Regulators could require tracks to provide true head-on views, which would involve some planning at turf courses where inside rails are adjusted. But this would provide stewards with better information on which to base their decisions.

The NFL relies on league office personnel to confirm or reverse decisions made by the referees on the field.

Racing has talked about this possibility in recent years, but the logistics of such a program would likely prevent its use in horse racing, except for a few major races.

With state-to-state regulatory oversight, racing commissions would be hesitant to accept an opinion or ruling from a third party over their own stewards. On-track stewards are able to speak with jockeys involved in an incident as part of the review. Occasionally this has value, when a jockey is totally candid about an incident. NFL officials, as we know, clearly do not concern themselves with the opinions of the players involved.

Football fans generally accept that a few bad calls by the refs balance out over time. The best teams win the most games. While the NFL has always been attractive to bettors (even before it became legal this past summer), virtually all racing fans are wagering on races.

Thus, with this tremendous potential to affect the result of a race and the wagers placed not only on that race but numerous exotic bets, the stewards are prime targets for criticism.

Of course, stewards’ decisions can be costly for some and rewarding for others. It is inevitable that some will be frustrated and angry at times. Pari-mutuel wagering is designed that way. Gamblers are betting against each other, not against the house.

In my experience as a steward or as an observer of other stewards, it is important to note that inconsistency in stewards’ decisions is not a matter of preferential treatment. Top jockeys and trainers do not get preference, though some jocks might be better at selling their argument—like some wide receivers are better at selling pass interference.

Except for occasional fill-in duty at the New York Racing Association tracks, my days in the stewards’ stand are behind me. But I know that active stewards are continuing to work toward harmonization on interference and making their decisions as objectively as possible.

Dr. Ted Hill, a former chief examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, served as The Jockey Club steward at the NYRA tracks for 19 years. He retired in December 2015.

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