Classic Collision - by Eric Mitchell

Egregious. Disgusting. Ugly. These and many much harsher words sailed through social media channels following the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park.

The highly anticipated showdown for Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old honors turned out to be a whole lot more dramatic than anyone could have anticipated. A chain reaction after the break was started by eventual winner Bayern who body-slammed Shared Belief into Moreno. Then Toast of New York, who finished second, got involved by banging Shared Belief and Moreno about 150 yards later.

When the stewards left the order of finish in place, a collective howl went out. How could such aggressive contact, effectively knocking front-running Moreno out of a position from which he could have challenged Bayern, not have affected the complexion of the race and potentially the outcome?

“People critique our calls all the time, but the take-away message here is: You have to be there,” said Kentucky state racing steward Barbara Borden. “We have more tools than people realize in making these decisions. After you slow things down and talk to the riders, things that look similar can actually be quite different.”

As a matter of course, Borden said, stewards rarely disqualify horses for incidences that happen at the gate. But that is not the same as saying what happens at the break cannot affect the result.

Stan Bowker, a steward in Indiana and at Oaklawn Park and a former chairman of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program, said interference after the break can definitely affect the outcome. Not referring specifically to the Classic because Bowker did not see it (he was paying attention to a race at Indiana Grand), he said interference of a speed horse could substantially change how that race unfolds.

But is that bad racing luck or a violation that deserves disqualification?

“It is different if the jockey is careless,” Bowker said. “If the jockey was careless, then I would expect him to be given days.”

In the case of the Classic, California racing steward Scott Chaney said there was no evidence that Bayern’s rider Martin Garcia cut sharply to the inside intentionally. Garcia was neither suspended nor fined.

“We all agreed there was interference; no question; Bayern broke in,” Chaney said. “Three or four horses suffered interference. But how much did it affect the outcome? Even if we thought there was interference, it may not lead to disqualification.”

How races are judged is shaped not only by each state’s set of rules but also by individual racetrack precedent. In some jurisdictions any horse that causes a foul automatically gets disqualified. So if there is bumping in the stretch and a horse still wins by five lengths, it could be disqualified. There has been a migration for several years, however, away from this “a foul is a foul” approach because of the other extreme—too many horses being DQ’d for relatively minor offenses.

Borden said she is glad Kentucky rules give stewards leeway in their rulings.

“I think we are fortunate that we can use our discretion on whether a horse that gets bumped in a mile-and-a-half race affects the race as much as one going five furlongs,” she said.

Bowker said people also have to realize that all officiating is subjective. Sports all have their rules, but at what point an athlete’s behavior crosses the line is going to be interpreted differently.

“I was a football official, and, if you want to, you could call holding on every play,” Bowker said. “Obviously, that doesn’t happen. There is a line you have to cross, and it is not the same for everyone. In baseball the strike zone is clearly defined, but some umpires have a wide strike zone or a high or low strike zone. You have to rely on the experience of the officials.”

So be careful what you wish for. If Bayern had been disqualified, then Toast of New York had to come down, too. That would have left California Chrome “winning” the Classic through a double-disqualification after the dual classic winner had the opportunity to close on the leaders and didn’t get it done.

Not very satisfying.

The start of the Classic was a mess and certainly changed the complexion of the race. But would it have changed the outcome? Who knows. With no objection filed by Shared Belief’s jockey Mike Smith or any other rider and without the benefit of seeing what the stewards can see, it looks like the best horse won.

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