The job of racing stewards gives rise to some of the same questions as the modern American presidency. You don't know whether it happens to attract bumbling incompetents, or whether it's so tough that nobody can do it right.

When I asked to go to Maryland tracks year-round, I maintained that the state's stewards couldn't spot an infraction if a mugger hit them over the head. The inconsistency and bad judgment of J. Fred Colwill and his associates were staggering. If they made a correct decision (as I believe they did in the Codex-Genuie Risk controversy) it was an instance of the blind pig stumbling onto an acorn.

But as I started to bet regularly at tracks around the country, I found myself thinking that their stewards were a bunch of dodos, too. New York's officials rendered decisions that seemed blantly prejudiced. Rulings in Florida were a welter of inconsistencies.

The fact that no stewards seem able to adjudicate foul claims consistently well probably says something about the job as well as the man who holds it.

Stewards have only a few minutes in which to decide questions that may be very complex. They issue their decision at the moment when people affected will be in a state of emotional agitation. When hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake on a foul claim that could go either way, neither side is going to be calm and objective. And the stewards are caught in the middle.

Unlike courtroom judges, who have a wide range of possible responses when they are adjudicating disputes, stewards have only two possible choices: take the number down or leave it up.

"What happened on Saturday," a midwestern racing official remarked, "fell into one of those gray areas that was 55-45 or maybe even 51-49, but the stewards still had to decide it one way or another. That's why they get paid very well."

The Pimlico stewards' mistake on Saturday was not the decision they made, but their attempt to whitewash what was obviously a close call. They clearly erred when they didn't post the INQUIRY sign, failing to acknowledge that the bumping incident was worth their scrutiny.

Colwill erred further when he went before naitonal television cameras and acted as if nothing had happened. He might at least have said that the apparent infraction wasn't serious enough to disqualify a clearly superior winner.

And I think the Maryland stewards (like their counterparts around the country) err by not allowing themselves a more flexible response to foul claims. There was nothing to prevent them from leaving Codex's number up but handing his jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., a suspension. Justice would have been doubly served: the best horse would have kept the victory, but the stewards would have acknowledged and punished Cordero's lack of sportsmanship.

Even if the stewards had handled the situation more intelligently and diplomatically, they were going to catch flak no matter what they decided.

By ruling in favor of Codex, they have had to withstand the blasts of newspaper "experts" who see three races a year and even air-headed TV anchorpersons who are convinced that this was the most blatant offense since the Soviets marched into Afghanistan.

If they had decided in favor of Genuine Risk, the stewards might not have received such noisy criticism, but they would have had a much harder time supporting their position.

When stewards disquality a clearly superior horse, they had better be able to display the proverbial smoking gun as evidence. And no matter what people think might have happened on the turn at Pimlico, the films do not clearly show Codex bumping Genuine Risk or Cordero hitting the filly with his whip. For disqualifying a horse under such circumstances they would have been justly vilified.

And if they had disqualified Codex, I am not sure that the ultimate effect of the decision would have been a popular one. By gaining a victory that she did not truly deserve, Genuine Risk would no longer be cast in the role of a beloved martyr. She would go to the Belmont Stakes seeking a tainted triple crown. When Forward Pass did that in 1968, the whole crowd booed him, vilified him. He was the most hated horse in America.

Genuine Risk has had a much happier fate. Instead of being viewed as a pouty, crybaby female who can't win fair and square, she's now the equine Joan of Arc.