The tough nature of the Horse Racing Steward’s World –

Bill Center might not be a name you are familiar with, but he has covered every sporting event you can think of for the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1967.

That’s a career.

Last week, he drafted his article summarizing the end of the Turf Racing Festival at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the closing of the Bing Crosby Season. He was lauding the success of Chad Brown’s stable, as the New York-based conditioner invaded Southern California on Thanksgiving, and promptly swept up most of the major prizes at the stakes-level. Towards the end of the piece Center had a sub-section called “Notable.” Two sentences read, 

‘Del Mar’s stewards handed top jockeys Ortiz and Prat three-day suspensions. Ortiz was penalized for his winning ride on Fluffy Socks in Saturday’s Grade III Jimmy Durante Stakes (although Fluffy Socks wasn’t disqualified). Prat drew his suspension after being disqualified from a win in Thursday’s first race.’

That news isn’t terribly unique (maybe obscure?), as jockeys get suspended for infractions frequently. Which might explain why these rulings were not reported across the North American horse racing networks more widely (they are available if you troll the California Horse Racing Board website). But it serves as a microcosm of something larger that is going on right now in the sport. That being, stewards continue to be reactive mechanisms in a decentralized sport, thus, nullifying any further opportunities to protect participants.

Isn’t that their primary mission – safety of horse and rider? I am not sure that was what happened during Thanksgiving at Del Mar.

Each week in Thoroughbred competition the jockeys’ changing rooms become abuzz when a major race day is upon them. It is interesting because unlike other individual sports, like tennis, you have this mixing where the current riders who are involved in the meet have outside invaders come into their midst. It is a shift in dynamics, and that is what occurred on Nov 26th. Leading jockeys like Irad Ortiz, Joel Rosario, and Manny Franco arrived for 4 days of competition at Del Mar. There must be something psychological within the jock colony. Hairs stand on end as adrenaline pumps. When they have this sudden merging of personalities in a locker room it breeds some kind of aggressiveness.

It appears that competitiveness spilled over onto the track on Thanksgiving. You saw it almost immediately in Race 1 when one of the leading SoCal riders, Flavien Prat, was disqualified for making a move on Papale #3 at the top of the stretch that cost Governor’s Party #2 a shot at a better finish. If you watch the replay, it is obvious that the stewards made the correct decision. Prat was having trouble controlling his mount.

From there, it was Irad Ortiz’s turn. He has a reputation for antagonistic riding, but that is part of this business, especially to hear jockeys tell it. You don’t win the Eclipse Award or appear in a Longines advertisement by being a wallflower. In Race 6, the featured Red Carpet-G3, he brought Chad Brown’s Orglandes #4 into the top of the turf lane, squeezing Graham Motion’s Blame Debbie #8 with Manny Franco aboard. The stewards decided not to issue any changes to the leader board, and Ortiz stayed on top with the win.

At the end of Day 1 of Del Mar’s Turf Racing Festival, there was something hawkish and rapacious in the air. I wondered, as the final race was in the books, did the stewards feel all this pent-up energy?

The inner workings of those judges are mysterious to the average fan of Thoroughbred racing. One of the best articles I have seen in recent memory came from another San Diego Herald-Tribune sports writer named Tod Leonard. In his Nov. 17 2018 piece, he interviewed Del Mar’s 3 stewards in an effort to understand their habits, tendencies, and duties. It hit upon what is still the major issue with fouls and how they are ruled on; that being, that stewards spend a fair amount of time trying to predict what “would have” happened to a horse that suffered the infraction, as opposed to what was actually committed.

This seemed particularly on display during the final weekend of the Bing Crosby Season at Del Mar. Race after race appeared hotly contested. The East Coast riders butted heads with the West Coasters in a series of challenging races. At times, it seemed infractions were aplenty, but then based on the ruling, not enough evidence pertaining to placement was found. One such case involved Irad Ortiz, in Race 5 (Jimmy Durante Stakes-G3) on the turf.

As the horses made their progress along the backstretch, Ortiz’s 2-yr-old filly and Chad Brown-trained mount called Fluffy Socks #8 was shuffled towards the rear. In typical fashion, for a runner with a late turn of foot, it was going to be up to her rider to work out a trip. You could literally see Ortiz’s impatience oozing through his silks.

Looking for a way out from the 3-path on the last turn, he butted up against Drayden Van Dyke’s appropriately-named Consternation #6, got free, then burst down the lane for the score. The “Inquiry” sign flashed with the lodging by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, but after deliberation by the stewards, the result stood. Fluff Socks won. The stewards, reading the tea leaves, uttered the oft-quoted determination that Consternation was “not cost the opportunity at a better placing.”

After the race when asked about his tactical approach, Ortiz responded almost coyly,

“No special instructions for me; he (trainer Chad Brown) just said ‘Ride her like you did before.’ She felt like a winner all the way around. We had some traffic on the turn (for home), but I got through and got her to where I wanted to be. She’s a nice filly. Big kick.”

Traffic on the turn? Got her where he wanted her to be? Indeed. Ortiz and Jose Hernandez, Brown’s onsite since he was back home in New York, both thought the inquiry would come down. Their smugness/bias rang true or was it just confidence that the move was a legal one? All this discussion would be a moot point were it not for what occurred next. On Sunday, looking back on the Jimmy Durante, the stewards determined that Ortiz needed to serve a three-day suspension for his “non-foul” against Consternation, when he used Fluffy Socks as a battering ram.

How could this be? Why was the determination made a day later instead of in the moment? Obviously, the intent was to punish Ortiz, which according to the CHRB, will result in the jockey serving his suspension Dec. 6, 10, and 11th. Hardly days when large purses are present at Gulfstream Park or Aqueduct, both venues where Ortiz rides. As for Flavien Prat, he was also suspended 3 days for his reckless riding aboard Papale to start the week. Hmm…

Here is a question then, since the stewards live in a world based on conjecture: what if Ortiz had not made that move to free Fluffy Socks? Would she have won beyond the pale? I am not certain. How do we square these seemingly contradictory events? A foul is not a foul, then?

The point of all this discussion about the final week at Del Mar is that not only did we find inconsistency in the steward’s rulings, but in a way, they failed to protect their mission of safety first for the Thoroughbreds and riders of this sport. Of course, they are human, we understand that, but aggressive riding is just that.

Shouldn’t the stewards pick up on the impact that invading jockeys can have on a meet, as the stakes are raised with graded company? Did they not see Ortiz and his previous tactics on display at Del Mar? They met with him and issued a warning after the Red Carpet. Ortiz tacitly admitted that he could have used better care, and then he placated the judges again with a similar faint on Sunday when he was called to explain his riding in the Jimmy Durante.

If the intent of a suspension is to punish a jockey for her/his behavior then Del Mar failed to teach the proper lesson. Will Irad Ortiz think twice next time about making a move that endangers himself, his mount, or a competitor’s ride? I think recalcitrance is in order. The stewards let him off the hook because his mount won a G3, the jockey still reaped the wages from the win, and now the connections can possibly use that victory when the breeding shed comes into play. To put it another way, that win has a domino effect to the good.

Maybe all that can be gleaned here is that stewards seem to adhere to Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.” Borrowing from the study of quantum mechanics and applying to race judging, that precise, simultaneous measurement of some complementary variables (such as the position and momentum of a subatomic particle) is impossible.

The view from the steward’s vantage point, whether through binoculars or on a screen, is the way it is. If that is not mercurial in nature, then I do not know what is.