The discussion over riding rules brought into the spotlight the controversial start of the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) during the California Horse Racing Board Feb. 18 meeting, but potential modifications to the regulations were pushed into the future.
The hour-long talk on the topic at Santa Anita Park centered onclarifying the language in the rules to limit the discretion of California racing stewards.
With three proposed language modifications, some on the CHRB suggested a change in rule verbiage to eliminate subjectivity from the stewards and increase consistency in rulings at all California tracks. The board plans to review the issue again after its Legislative, Legal, and Regulations Committee meets with track stewards later in the year.
"There's obviously no simple answer, but if you're looking for consistency, the most direct route to consistency is to reduce the discretion of the decision-maker," CHRB member Jesse Choper said. "The more rules you have, the more consistency. The difficulty is you may be wrong because of a bad rule. I favor the rule-makers and not the judgement-callers."
Santa Anita stewards were criticized harshly after they reviewed the Nov. 1 Classic Nov. 1, in which eventual winner Bayern interfered with favored Shared Belief and others after breaking sharply inward after the gate opened. Stewards ruled that though there was obvious interference, the contact at the start did not impact where fourth-place finisher Shared Belief "might reasonably be expected to finish."
Scott Chaney, who was the only steward in attendance at the CHRB meeting, called the Classic the "elephant in the room."
Some CHRB members indicated extra words should be added to the regulation regarding the start, specifically if a collision was "severe," but Chaney said that would add subjectivity instead of limiting it.
"It would move the subjectivity over whether it was severe or not," Chaney said.
All three proposals called for the elimination of the language in the rule that states stewards should consider if an infraction occurred "in a part of the race where the (fouled) horse loses the opportunity where it might be reasonably expected to finish."
"That's the problem," said CHRB member Madeline Auerbach, who cited a race Feb. 16 in which a horse she owned was similarly interfered with coming out of the gate. "We're not clairvoyant. When we're talking about interference at the start, when did that become OK? When did it become acceptable for that major interference?"
Chaney admitted rule clarification could simplify the process of inquiries and objections.
"It might make our job easier if we just say, in close cases, we're taking the horse down, but it will lead to more disqualifications," Chaney said.
Auerbach spoke extensively about what she viewed as a "cowboy atmosphere" among jockeys in the state, and she warned of the perils of dangerous riding, specifically at the start of races.
"There are a lot of young and inexperienced jockeys," Auerbach said. "I don't want the wild west out there. I don't want to be on this board if we lose a jockey because we couldn't make tough decisions."
The board also discussed possibly increasing penalties on jockeys who have caused interference, instead of changing the results of the race. That thought was supported by Darrell Haire, the Jockeys' Guild western regional manager.
"Even the riders are confused, or they don't understand, in different parts of the country," Haire said of current rule interpretations. "Now, if you get the first jump, it's like a free-for-all. They think it's OK and some trainers think it's OK. They tell the riders, if (the horse) breaks in, take advantage of it.
"That's what I'm afraid of. We have to work with the stewards and be on the same page, so (jockeys who commit infractions) suffer the consequences."
Chaney also supported the current practice of penalizing the offending jockey after the fact, instead of changing the order of finish in any specific race, if it is in the opinion of the stewards that the infraction did not impact the finishing order. The idea of enforcing the rules as "a foul is a foul" and disqualifying any horse who breaks the rules was roundly dismissed.
"The inquiry should not be used to punish the jockey," Chaney said. "Why harm the wagering public when we can deal with the poor riding, which is something we take very seriously? That's how we correct riding, not through the riding rule, which I think is a terrible road to go down.
"The reality of the situation is that any rule change would be significantly in the future and would still not satisfy all, or likely any, parties involved.
"All of these are judgment calls," CHRB chairman Chuck Winner said. "They will always be judgment calls—just like in football, basketball, and baseball. What is a strike, what is a ball? What is interference, what isn't interference? All of these things can be discussed, (but) nobody is going to be very happy with the outcome."