J. Fred Colwill and his fellow stewards preside over Maryland racing as if it is their fiefdom. Their power is enormous; their judgment is rarely challenged.

So from the standpoint of race trackers, the extraordinary thing about the Maryland Racing Commission's hearing on the Preakness was seeing the three stewards called onto the carpet and forced to justify a decision.

The testimony of Colwill, Edward Litzenberger and Clinton Pitts Jr., may not have done much to settle the Preakness controversy. But theirs was testimony to the fact that power breeds arrogance.

They talked the way autocratic men usually do. They refused to acknowledge any self-doubts. They refused to admit any indecision. They portrayed every issue in black and white terms with themselves in the absolute right.

One of the reasons that the Preakness foul claim became an overblown controversy was Colwill's inept explanation on television of the reason the stewards had disallowed Jacinto Vasquez's foul claim.

If he had been smart, he might have said something like this: "This was a tough call. It is conceivable that Condex might have bumped Genuine Risk or Cordero struck her with his whip, but the films don't show it, and the filly never broke stride significantly. Codex did carry Genuine Risk wide on the turn, but in our judgment, this infraction was not serious enough to affect the outcome or warrant a disqualification."

But Colwill took a "Huh? What foul?" posture in that interview and -- incredibly -- he and the three stewards maintained it throughout their testimony before the commission today.

To do this, they sometimes had to close their eyes to the facts. Colwill and the other stewards all pointed out that Codex was wide throughout the race, and said that he was going only slightly wider when he carried Genuine Risk out on the final turn.

"How many widths did he drift?" asked Henry Lord, attorney for Genuine Risk's owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bert Firestone.

"That's terribly hard to say," Colwill replied.

"But you seemed so certain as to where the horses were on the turn," Lord shot back.

In fact, experienced race watchers could tell just how far Codex did drift. When he passed the two tiring leaders, the three of them were very tight together; Codex, on the outside of them, was running in what handicappers call "the three path."

By the time he had swung out into the stretch, he was in the sixth or seventh path. He had moved out three or four horse widths -- a considerable amount. It was the obligation of the stewards to explain why this was not a foul -- not to deny that what happened had happened.

The arrogance of the stewards reached its zenith when they testified about patrol judge Coley Blind's report that Cordero may have committed a deliberate foul.

His testimony might have been crucial. As Commissioner Neil McArdle said. "The pictures show every angle except what we want to see. The only person in a position to see what happened was Mr. Blind."

But the stewards did not even bother to ask Blind whether he saw the horses bump or whether Cordero hit the filly with his whip. In their testimony, they talked as if he were the village idiot and they were just letting him stay in the patrol judge's stand so he could keep out of the rain.

Stewards in other states do not operate in such a fashion. And in many other respects, the arrogance and bad judgment of the Maryland officials is almost unique in American racing.

The widespread perception of their shortcomings may be the most productive result of the Preakness hearing. After disposing of the Codex-Genuine Risk controversy, the commissioners should take a hard look at the competence of J. Fred Colwill.