Honoring Judgment

By John W. Russell

An essential precept for any impartial enforcement of the rules of racing is judgment, and nowhere on the American Turf has this principle been better upheld than under the keen eye and vast experience of Pete Pedersen, senior steward for the California Horse Racing Board. The rigidity of legal dictates often precludes the exercise of judgment, but Pete has devoted much of his life to enforcing rules with empathy and discretion.

By nature of his profession as a steward, Pete is constantly placed in the middle of contentious disagreements. Occasionally required to reverse the order of finish in a race and dispense penalties for infractions of the rules, he must also conduct a multitude of other duties that often earn the wrath of horsemen, jockeys, the press, and racing fans alike. Controversy is an ever-present daily diet for a steward, and few people send them Christmas cards. Being an arbitrator of disputes might easily enlist a battalion of enemies. But Pete is an exception; popular and discreet, he has mercifully few detractors, and is approachable by all.

Jockeys are notoriously critical of stewards since they perform daily under the stewards' vigilant eyes. When suspensions are handed down for riding infractions, jockeys rarely agree with a decision. Now that he has retired after many years of riding under Pete, jockey Don Pierce can be more objective about the man who sent him to the golf course for a few days on more than one occasion. He has no reason to be patronizing when he says, "Pete Pedersen is the best steward I ever rode under, by far! He was knowledgable and always fair."

On any given afternoon, Pete's tall, distinguished figure can be seen marching through the grandstand of Santa Anita with a distinctly military bearing, and yet he always has a friendly smile for everyone, and an informed opinion for anyone who might ask. He is as easily identifiable to fans as he is to racing professionals, and respected by both.

During my years of training horses in California, I had a natural aversion to doing business with stewards, but now confess to enjoying almost every occasion that I came across Pete. I may not have agreed with every opinion that he expressed, but we always discussed events without acrimony and parted without ill feelings. He had then, and now, the ability to press his point with a gentle but persuasive logic that is quintessential to his nature and the product of his experience.

In his earliest years of involvement with Thoroughbred racing, Pete wrote for the Los Angeles Times, where he came in contact with people from all walks of life, and where his accumulation of knowledge about racing proved a truism best expressed by Yogi Berra: "You can observe a lot just by watchin'."

"Pete is an absolute pro," said Tom Robbins, who has worked with Pete for many years as director of racing at Santa Anita and Del Mar. "He has always exercised good judgment, particularly in areas where there can be a vague interpretation of rules. He has always acted in the best interest of racing, and there is no segment of racing that goes beyond his scope of

An avid reader himself, Pete continues to write an occasional article for publication. When asked to define the substance of Pete's skill as a steward, Dan Smith, director of marketing for Del Mar, said, "Pete has an insightful feel for the color of racing."

Never shy to tell an amusing yarn at a cocktail party, Pete has a wealth of stories that emanate from his long association with both leaders of our sport and the people of the backstretch. And it is that dry sense of humor that I most enjoy about this outwardly stern arbiter of justice. He once related to me an incident that took place years ago in Northern California. It seems a veterinarian, whose own horse was the only one in a race that was not treated by him, won the race. "It just shows you," Pete observed. "Veterinary medicine isn't as advanced as it should be!"

Now in his 54th year in the stewards' stand, Pete is about to receive the recognition he so richly deserves. He will join an elite list of people, including another eminent jurist, former steward Keene Daingerfield, with an Eclipse Award of Merit that shall be presented at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort in Miami Beach on Feb. 18.

JOHN W. RUSSELL is a retired trainer living in Southern California.