I Declare

By Morton Cathro
Immediately after the third race at Saratoga on a summer's day long ago, an altercation occurred during which Mr. J.T. Williams, owner, hit Mr. Phil Dwyer, gambler, over the head with his umbrella. Dwyer responded, according to the New York Times of Aug. 2, 1889, with a sharp blow of his fist to Williams' nose.

This unseemly display of ungentlemanly conduct at the nation's swankiest racecourse arose when Glockner, a 3-year-old colt owned by Williams, crossed the finish line first. Problem was, Glockner finished ahead of his uncoupled stablemate, Newcastle--whom Williams, prior to the race, had publicly "declared to win."

Dwyer, having plunged heavily on Newcastle, accused Williams of double-crossing bettors, and the mayhem ensued.

If recent action by the California Horse Racing Board should become permanent and be embraced by other states, racing might well see the return of the old, largely forgotten "declaring to win" rule invoked by the umbrella-wielding gentleman of yesteryear--with the unintended consequences it sometimes brings.

Desperate to increase the number of betting opportunities in the short fields now commonplace at California tracks, the board mandated the temporary elimination, for wagering purposes, of coupled entries by common ownership. In other words, no more 1 and 1A, no more two for the price of one. And, we might add, one more challenge for the already beleaguered handicapper: Which of the now-uncoupled entries is "live?"

The sporting thing will be for the owner to make known his or her first choice in advance. The path to the finish line will be paved with good intentions...but there are no guarantees.

Even when entries are coupled and bettors cash regardless of which horse wins, results can be embarrassing. In the 1934 Preakness, for example, Cavalcade, who had just won the Kentucky Derby, was part of Brookmeade Stable's entry with High Quest. Owner Isabelle Dodge Sloane declared to win with Cavalcade but Bobby Jones, High Quest's jockey, took his mount to the front and stayed there, Cavalcade's desperate stretch charge, a quest for the second leg of the Triple Crown, fell short by a nose.

Years earlier, the aptly named horse, Inflexible, refused to bend to her stablemate Mimosa, with whom owner W.C. Whitney had declared to win. Inflexible's jockey promptly was fined $200 by the stewards for not following instructions to hold back his horse.

In the 1950 Santa Anita Maturity, the brilliant Calumet filly Two Lea purposely bowed to coupled stablemate Ponder in the stretch to allow the Kentucky Derby winner to add to his laurels. Fans--some perhaps with future book bets on Two Lea alone--were furious. Spurred by the idea that a race should go to the best horse, one disgruntled horseplayer complained to the Los Angeles Times:

"Just how honest is horse racing when one sees (Eddie) Arcaro, one of the leading jockeys in the land, deliberately pull the horse he is riding to allow another horse to win, and not suffer any penalty?...Why are horses allowed to enter a race when the secretary as well as stewards know they are entered with no thought of even trying to win?"

Seabiscuit closed out his storybook career with a popular victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Owner Charles S. Howard had declared to win with his sentimental favorite, but entered stablemate Kayak II as insurance should The 'Biscuit falter.

Following the 2001 publication of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend the omission from the book of Howard's declaration (later omitted from the movie as well) was publicly criticized by emeritus professor of history Ralph E. Shaffer of Cal Poly-Pomona. Shaffer's op-ed newspaper columns supporting Kayak II sparked other umbrella-wielding verbal assaults, pro and con, in the national media.

Seabiscuit, of course, didn't falter. But Kayak II closed from last with a rush that day to make up 12 lengths and finish second, under wraps. For citing fresh revelations supporting the theory that an unrestrained Kayak II might have won, Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times was voted the 2004 Media Eclipse Award.

Controversial since the 19th century, the practice of declaring to win should seem a good bet to add intrigue to the sport well into the 21st.