Rush To Confusion
Date Posted: 5/13/2003 9:47:47 AM

Editor-in-Chief
Ray Paulick

By Ray Paulick -- Most interesting comment in the 48-hour media barrage surrounding the "controversy" of Jose Santos and the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) came at about hour 24, during a roundtable discussion of journalists on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" telecast the morning of May 11.

Jason Whitlock, a columnist with the Kansas City Star and one of the regulars on the show, said he thought all the publicity generated by the story was the "best thing" that could ever happen to racing. It would be easy to dismiss that comment as nonsense, but Whitlock, an admitted non-racing fan, really may be on to something. Racing got unprecedented publicity and it stood up quite well to the scrutiny.

Bernie Hettel, the executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission and the chief steward who led the investigation, said the end result proved that "the system worked." Under the system, every race is investigated in its own way, whether it's the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs or the ninth race on a Friday at Mountaineer Park.

Stewards and other officials not only watch for riding infractions that could lead to disqualifications or suspensions, but they also are on the lookout for jockeys willing to take an edge through the use of an electrical device, also known as a battery or buzzer.

Occasionally, stewards receive information or hear rumors from fans, horsemen, or the media, suggesting possible impropriety in a race. If the source of the information is credible, the stewards are obligated to investigate whether there is any substance to the charges. If the information leads nowhere, the rumors are buried before they become a story.

That should have been the case involving the photograph a writer for the Miami Herald e-mailed to Hettel five days after Funny Cide's victory in the Derby. The photo showed a shadowy area in Santos' right hand that the Herald writer, Frank Carlson, suggested could be some type of foreign object. Hettel agreed to investigate the matter, and, according to Hettel, Carlson said he would not discuss the matter with anyone else or have a story about the photo published in the Miami paper.

However, Hettel said, Carlson and the newspaper felt a need to "rush to judgment," and a story and photograph published in the May 10 Herald opened the starting gates to a flood of news coverage.

The story included quotes from Santos saying he did carry something in his right hand, but it wasn't clear from his comments what the object was.

Midway through the day, Daily Racing Form published a story on its Internet site with an explanation from Santos about being misquoted in the Herald story. It turned out the object he carried in his right hand was actually a bracelet he wore on his left wrist. A native of Chile, Santos has a heavy Spanish accent, and the Herald reporter apparently was confused over exactly what the jockey had said.

The explanation didn't keep the general news media from feasting on the story. The following morning, the Derby photo controversy was front-page news in many newspapers across the country.

Meanwhile, Hettel and his associates gathered as many other Derby photographs as possible, having them enhanced and enlarged to get a better look at the mysterious "shadow." The photographs made it clear the dark area was caused by the silks or goggles worn by Jerry Bailey aboard Empire Maker. Santos was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Under normal circumstances, the public would not have heard a word about the photograph in question or about the stewards investigating Santos. That was not the case here, unfortunately. Santos, a proud man who brought an impeccable reputation to the Derby, had his greatest achievement unfairly darkened by this cloud of controversy.

The publicity from this may or may not have done racing some good. But it certainly has not done anything to benefit Jose Santos.

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