Monday, May 06, 2019

The Four Dirtiest Words in the English Language Are?

Such an easy question. They are the announcement"hold all tickets," followed by the flashing sign reading "Inquiry."

That rush you felt picking the winner of a horse race, be it the Kentucky Derby or the 5th at Aqueduct on a February Wednesday? Forget it. Now you will sweat in mystified frustration as the stewards review the tapes to see if the race was conducted on the up and up, or if a horse and/or his jockey violated the rules installed for safety and fair competition.

Sometimes, the majority of times actually, the inquiry lets the results stand, and you cheerfully if no longer triumphantly cash your ticket. But other times, well, the foul claim is upheld, and the race results altered by officiating fiat. Your winner is now a loser. The universe is a hostile entity that hates you. You wuz robbed.

Anyone who's gone to the track more than sporadically has experience that sensation, and come to the realization that they wasn't robbed, just a victim of the random chance that lets many if not all horseplayers to die broke. It doesn't happen all that often, but often enough to make it a universal experience for the shrinking regular audience for thoroughbred racing.

So it was just a matter of racing luck that the Derby, the one race out of thousands for which the audience actually expands to include regular sports fans and even not fans, saw a foul claim upheld last Saturday against its original winner Maximum Security, with second place finisher Country House installed as the victor after an agonizing 20 minutes of delay. The reaction of the 150,000 at Churchill Downs was strong disapproval. Maximum Security was a 9-2 favorite, Country House a 65-1 long shot, meaning there were about 00 Maximum Security bettors for every Country House plunger (BTW, the brave deluded souls who got that payday from Country House are precisely the kind of horseplayers who go broke fastest).

Since this was the first time in 145 Derbies a winner had been disqualified for a foul, and since the Derby audience is the sport's largest, much controversy has ensued. Maximum Security was the best horse in the race, managing to win after shying and cutting across the paths of several other horses, causing at least one to he momentarily pulled up. That horse was not Country House, who was in an outside position of the clubhouse turn safely removed from the incident.

A better formula for sports argumentation could scarcely be imagined, and argumentation we have had. Aside from Maximum Security's owners, trainer and jockey, who lost the most last Saturday, the argument has broken into two rough camps.

The first, and probably larger camp is exemplified by the President of the United States, who tweeted on Sunday that Maximum Security's DQ was a major injustice he attributed to "political correctness."  Whatever that meant, Donald Trump was echoing the emotions of millions of others and also their demographic profile. He is one of those fans for whom watching the Derby may be their only annual experience of horse racing. And if I can judge by social media searching, an overwhelming majority of those fans believe Maximum Security was robbed, that his swerving did not affect the outcome enough to nullify the race's original finish.

(I wonder how many of those people live in Greater New Orleans and remain indignant that a non-call, a decision not to enforce a rule,, knocked the Saints out of the Super Bowl.)

The fans who have defended the stewards' decision are almost all more serious students of the turf, men and women who've been to many racetracks and seen many races. They have learned two things through hard experience, that DQs are a part of the game and more importantly, that they need to be.

Racing has rules in part to insure fair competition. It's sophistry to claim Maximum Security's swerve across the track didn't affect the Derby's outcome. If it had a negative effect on any other horse it did so by definition. No one can say what would have happened if Maximum Security had kept to his lane. We just know he didn't, and impeded other horses in the process.

The truly vital reason racing has rules, however, is because the sport is so dangerous for its animal and human competitors alike. A thoroughbred is not a stock car. It's a hugely powerful and vulnerable living being giving its all, bred for centuries to give its all.  Nor are jockeys encased in a protective steel cage like Kyle Busch. They have a helmet that doesn't even cover their ears, which does a fat lot of good when they're trampled by a horse or two running at top speed.

The Derby has a field of 20 every year. This is by far the largest field of any race in the US. Most have like between 5 and 8.  Since Churchill Downs' track doesn't get any wider, this means the Derby has the highest potential for disastrous accident of any race. It's the one where the rules ought to be most strictly enforced.

It is significant that the officials in horse racing are called stewards, not umpires or referees. The word conveys the idea that their most important responsibility is to take care of the participants in each race, to make sure they all had a fair chance, to make sure there are sanctions for endangering other competitors. It speaks well for the stewards at Churchill Downs that they were willing to take the considerable heat they had to know was coming to uphold their trust.

If you haven't guessed by now, I am, if not a devout, a more than occasional racegoer and have been for quite some time. I stand with the stewards of Churchill Downs for simple reasons based on my own experiences.

I've had winning tickets go up in smoke when my horse was DQ for a foul. It sucks. I have also, however, seen horses destroyed after an injury, and seen jockeys hustled from the track in an ambulance.

Those occasions sucked far, far, far worse.


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