Philly Park Disciplines Starter for Oaks Start Problem

Philadelphia Park has taken disciplinary action against its longtime starter, Russell E. Downes, for a mishap at the start of the $100,000 Pennsylvania Oaks on Labor Day, Sept. 5.

Track management suspended Downes, 65, who has worked at Philadelphia Park for more than 30 years, for one week after he left Farish, Elkins, Jr. et. al's Private Gift standing behind the starting gate while the rest of the field was sent on its way.

It was the first time that Downes had made such an error, but it cost track management plenty. It had to refund $128,973 in wagers on Private Gift, plus reimburse her owners all expenses related to the Oaks start. She shipped from Saratoga for the race for trainer Neil Howard.

"I blew it. It's my own fault," Downes told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I just made a mistake, but it doesn't make the pain any less. There was a lot of crowd noise and I just didn't see the horse."

John Stodalack, a member of the starting gate crew and Downes' backup, is the starter this week.

Hal Handel, chief executive officer of the Bensalem, Pa. track, said that Downes' "exemplary record" was taken into consideration before the one-week suspension was handed out.