If there is one thing the large majority of people tied to the racing industry can agree on, it is that we don’t need any black eyes. We have had our fair share and most people already perceive the industry as being in a steady decline. It is hard to intelligently argue against that view. That said, there are efforts being made to revive our game to the grand status it once held as the Sport of Kings. Esquire network is introducing viewers to the world of professional horse playing; a life style that is as challenging as any you’ll find and can be just as rewarding. Some racetracks are improving their facilities and showing a renewed interest in customer service. Contests and tournaments are being promoted and celebrated and all this is good but not the answer to our problems and not the end all be all. That is going to take a lot more and what we can’t afford is unnecessary hits.
The Rainbow 6, introduced by Gulfstream Park, is one of those positive developments in the industry. It has gained momentum and generates excitement on almost every day it’s offered. It’s a jackpot style bet that only pays off the whole pool when there is a single winning ticket. When more than one winning ticket exists a portion of the pool is distributed to the winners with the majority carrying over to await the jackpot payout – a great and exciting prospect enhanced by the wagers 20 cent minimum. It is a potentially life changing wager that has produced some massive payouts and has thrust Gulfstream into the spotlight of racing that I think it deserves. It is a magnificent facility that puts on world class racing with enthusiasm. The views of the races are flawless, the grounds are immaculate, and the love of the game and all that goes with it oozes from the place.
The Rainbow 6 offers both the experienced and novice pick 6 player a unique set of challenges above the inherent need to be a good money manager and handicapper. The 20 cent minimum allows for inclusion of more runners, essentially increasing ones chance to hit it while decreasing ones chance of having the sole winning ticket. Even with these difficulties built in to constructing a ticket, you just never know. As we’ve seen on several days recently, the field for last race often loads with tickets alive for the jackpot. As a player, it is an enviable position to be in.
Saturday at Gulfstream Park was a glorious day of racing. It featured a great card filled with talented horses from some of the nation’s best outfits. The program was highlighted by The Fountain of Youth Stakes, a popular and meaningful prep for the upcoming Kentucky Derby. It also offered a massive Rainbow 6 pool in excess of $1-million. An exciting day was anticipated by most racing fans but the drama that was to unfold was pretty much unexpected.
After a day of racing that did not disappoint, the last race (a maiden claiming race on the grass with a purse of $34,500) was all that was left. This was no ordinary maiden claimer however, as the entire Rainbow 6 pool hung in the balance. There was a single ticket alive to the number 12, a horse named Collinito, and someone out there was on the brink of a million dollar plus score. All Collinito had to do was finish first, or so we thought.
Collinito was far from a hopeless prospect. He was brought to Gulfstream by sharp New York trainer Gary Contessa, who knows how to get to the winners circle. He had a great, young and aggressive rider in Luis Saez aboard and he figured to show some speed. As any handicapper knows, speed is almost always dangerous.
One can only imagine the excitement felt by the ticket holder as Collinito hit the stretch in front, while still in one heck of a race, as a massive field of horses continued to chase him all the way. When he crossed the wire first, I guess it is safe to assume a celebratory feeling came across at least one very happy player. Experienced watchers no doubt saw the second finisher Strategic Keeper steady some in the stretch and knew the stewards might take a look at it. It didn’t appear serious from the pan shot and also didn’t look like it affected the outcome. Surely, the result would stand. Agree or disagree, that was my thought as they crossed the line. I also thought to myself, oh well, there goes the Rainbow 6 pool until it builds again.
As expected, the inquiry sign went up and fans were treated to the head-on view used by the stewards. I go back a long way in horse racing, back to the days when horses actually won the Triple Crown. I have seen three, back to when two Triple Crown winners actually raced each other – can you even imagine that now? I have seen many races and many inquiries. Back in the day, when the inquiry sign went up experienced watchers pretty much knew what was going to happen. Either there was a foul or there wasn’t and you would be right 99 out of 100 times about what decision the stewards would make. Along with the departure of those glory days of the Triple Crown, winners actually racing each other also appear gone, giving another black eye to our sport, which we cannot afford. We have enough issues with uncared for retired horses, permanently injured riders, racing accidents, illegal drugs, public perception, high takeouts, out of touch racing executives, no central governing body, inconsistent rules from state to state etc.etc.etc. We don’t need steward inconsistencies and poor rulings adding to our problems.
The head on shot showed that Collinito, while clear and out in the middle of the track, drifted out a path or two in front of Strategic Keeper. It was slight and not dramatic. The rider continued his best efforts to maintain a relatively straight course and did not “race ride” the other horse to intimidate him. The rider of Strategic Keeper, Paco Lopez, also an excellent young rider steadied slightly but continued to run up on the horse in front of him. Then, while Collinito was completely clear and going straight, Strategic Keeper drifted in a path and steadied a bit. All of these movements were slight and did not seem to affect the races outcome.
Further, this type of herding, so to speak, happens daily and if one watches the head on and looks at the other horses in the race (which, given the circumstances is admittedly hard to do) you will see more dramatic herding and no inquiries. You may not agree. As the blow ups and rants we’ve all seen on Twitter and Facebook clearly show, there are differing opinions on what we all saw. And therein lies the crux of this problem – one that will see no resolution (and no public acceptance) if merely left to the subjective opinions of a few.
In today’s world of technology, we also have the luxury of an overhead view. I would assume stewards utilize it as they are making these decisions that directly involve large amounts of other people’s money. That view, available on Trakus, a wonderful tool and enhancement to our industry, clearly strengthens my interpretation of what transpired on the racetrack.
To a large extent, we, as fans and players, brought this on ourselves. Since we always voiced complaints, like “that foul didn’t affect the outcome,” racetracks adopted a new approach. They began allowing stewards the discretion to make or not make a change based on their perception of whether the foul affected any placings. While on the surface this adopted policy might have appeared benevolent, in that it allowed for common sense to be applied to rulings, it also created a large gray area. The fact is we simply do not all agree on what constitutes common sense and how it applies to observed infractions on the racetrack. That’s why we need to stick to the objective and have the rules applied evenly and fairly in all cases.
When we allow subjectivity for stewards to say “well, it didn’t affect the outcome,” we only add more confusion and margin for error. We need a clearly defined set of rules published at each race meet stating exactly what are the grounds for disqualification. Stewards should have to adhere strictly to these guidelines with a minimum amount of discretion and should be held accountable by having to explain their rulings and decisions (similar to what NYRA was doing for a brief period when they posted on monitors the stewards thought process). Furthermore, we need transparency in terms of allowing the public to be able to hear the jockey and steward discussions prior to rulings. After all, they are talking about our money.
I think the stewards blew the Gulfstream call horribly. I think that the bad call cost a deserving player dearly. Do I think it was some clandestine conspiracy by Gulfstream to keep the Rainbow 6 going? No, surely not. Do I think it can be a wake up call to fix this steward issue once and for all? Absolutely. Albeit, too late for one player.
While remaining cognizant of human nature, history, and all that goes with it, I have known Gulfstream to be a world class facility and Tim Ritvo handles his job with a dedication to our game, and all that’s good about it, with as much vigor as some of the past legends who have held similar positions. The game needs more like him, not less. And say what you will about Frank Stronach, he isn’t afraid to put his money up, make mistakes and learn from them, while improving our game on every level and in every area. I am not buying a conspiracy but I will say that what happened on Saturday looked bad given the circumstances. Really bad. Maybe the excitement clouded the steward’s judgment, maybe not. But again, we are dealing in the realm of the subjective and we need to be objective.
We need to bring consistency and transparency and most importantly fairness to steward rulings. The Rainbow 6 fiasco is only one example. We can argue the disqualification of She’s a Tiger in the Breeders Cup of all races. Again I thought that was a bad call, ridiculously so, and on our big stage but that is just my subjective opinion. A clearly defined set of rules and boundaries with minimal discretion, accountability, experienced and trained stewards along with transparency will eliminate a lot of that subjectivity. That is what we need, not another black eye.
John Stettin is a profesional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 8, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin.