Television viewers who saw Genuine Risk "mugged" by Codex in the Preakness undoubtedly will conclude that the Maryland Racing Commission's upholding of the final result -- a win for Codex -- was a craven whitewash.
But most people who sat through three days of hearings on the appeal by Genuine Risk's owners came away with a different, more equivocal set of impressions:
Codex did carry Genuine Risk so wide on the turn that a disqualification may well have been warranted.
There was no "smoking gun," no evidence of bumping or illegal whipping that would have made the stewards' decision something other than a close judgement call. And the commissioners were legally entitled to overrule the stewards only if they had been "clearly wrong."
The Preakness issue had been transformed from an ordinary steawards' judgement call into a national cause celebre largely because of ABC's coverage of the event. This hearing suggested that ABC's version of what happened on May 17 was grossly distorted.
When jokey Jacinto Vasquez lodged his foul claim against Codex, commentator Eddie Arcaro had a minute or so to look at the ABC films of the controversial incedent before expressing his opinion that the winner should be disqualified. Moreover, he surmised in advance what the stewards' thinking would be if they didn't take down Codex's number: they would not want to apply their usual standards to the Preakness becuase it was a special race.
Millions of Americans took the opinion of the legendary jockey as gospel. He legitimized the view of Genuine Risk's fans that great injustice had been done.Soon people were speaking matter-of-factly about the way jockey Angel Cordero Jr. had struck the filly with his whip. One writer said that Codex delivered "a cross-body block that would have decked Franco Harris."
Americans viewed the events in the Preakness with a lynch-mob mentality. And it was this virtual unanimity of opinion that persuaded owner Bert Firestone to take his case to the commission.
But this national consensus, like Arcaro's judgement, was based principally on shots from an ABC camera that experts testified gave a badly distorted view of what was happening at the head of the stretch.
Expert photographers testified that looking at objects from an angle -- rather than head-on -- always makes them seem closer together than they really are. And a high-powered zoom lens, like ABC's, creates a "foreshortening effect" that alters depth perception significantly.
At the point of the race where the "mugging" had supposedly occurred, where Codex seemed to be bumping Genuine Risk continually, a Baltimore Sun photographer shot a series of pictures from a virtual head-on perspective. sEvery shot showed ample daylight between the two horses.
The stewards' films, which gave a much fuller depiction of the race than ABC's, did not reveal bumping or illegal whipping. Neither Vasquez nor any portion of any film and say, "There! He bumped her!" or "There! He hit her with the whip!"
It is hard to convince millions of people that they did not really see what they think they saw, especially after an expert -- Arcaro -- verified that they saw it. But the commissioners were persuaded, and in Kenneth Proctor's explanation of the majority opinion this was the point he was firmest on.
"We feel very definitely," he said, "that the ABC pan, because of the different angles of view, is distorted -- particularly at the crucial point around the quarter-mile pole."
All the hyperbole about the "mugging" of the filly distracted the attention of the public, and some of the principals in the hearing, from the real issue in the foul claim. The witness who perceived that issue most clearly was veteran jockey Bill Passmore.
"I've been hearing about bumping and brushing for two days," he said when he testified Tuesday. "That doesn't have anything to do with it. The issue is: Was she carried out far enough for a disqualification? It's that simple."
It was that simple. After examining the supposedly damning ABC films, I wrote that I saw no serious contact, and pointed out that stewards are usually very forgiving about horses drifting on a turn.
But the stewards' films, shown ad infinitum at this hearing, show what ABC's did not: the extent to which Codex did drift. He was three horses wide when he surged past the tiring leaders and Genuine Risk started to move up outside him. He was sevenwide when he swung into the stretch.
This goes a bit beyond what is ordinarily permissible on turns. Having seen Cordero employ almost identical tactics at Hialeah this winter, I am convinced that it was deliberate. There would certainly have been justification for a disqualification on May 17.
But the amount of drifting that is allowable is clearly a judgment call. There is no hard-and-fast rule that says a horse may dirft two widths, for example, but not 2 1/2. If such decisions could be overturned on appeal, said John Nerud, president of the Tartan Stable which owns Codex, "every stakes race in every state could wind up in court."
The commissioners recognized that. "We have no power and authority to upset a judgement call," Proctor said. By upholding the stewards, they let stand a ruling that might have been marginally wrong. They certainly did not sanction a decision that was -- as so many television viewrs will continue to believe -- an egregious injestice.