For more than a year, public attention has been drawn to the glaring problems of the racing industry: the fixes, the misuse of drugs. But last month, in two disparate settings, attention was finally directed to a principal cause of these ills: the inadequacies of race track stewards.
When J. Fred Colwill, Pimlico's senior steward, went before a nationwide television audience and said that he and his cohorts hadn't seen anything untoward happen in the Preakness, the clumsiness of his explanation touched off heated controversy and tarnished the sport. Twenty million viewers probably assumed that Colwill was unusually inept for a member of his profession. They were wrong.
At about the same time the Preakness controversy was simmering, astonishing revelations were coming from the race-fixing trial of former jockey Con Errico. According to testimony, at least 10 persons had gone to the New York stewards to report bribes or attempted fixes. Those stewards -- given advance notice of a scandal that ultimately would rock the industry -- apparently did absolutely nothing.
This was typical. At tracks across the country the most important racing officials fail to officiate. The men who ought to be guardians of the sport's integrity see no evil, hear no evil and acknowledge no evil.
Besides the occasional big scandals that make headlines, horse racing is full of petit larceny. Jockeys hold horses, trainers maneuver the horses for purposes of a betting coup. In theory, at least, stewards who witness suspicious performances on the track may summon a rider or trainer before them and demand, "What happened?" Even if the stewards take no action, riders and horsemen at least know that the authorities have their eyes open.
But few stewards conduct this kind of rudimentary surveillance of the sport -- even in flagrant cases. I long have been an appreciative student of race track larceny, and probably the most blatant form reversal I ever saw occurred a year ago at Gulfstream Park.
An undistinguished horse had lost his last seven races by margins of 18, 14, 16, 16, 16, 28 and 36 lengths. Now, for no apparent reason, money was being poured onto him, knocking his price down to an incredibly low 5 to 1. The horse won, under wraps, by 6 1/2 lengths.
Appalled, I raced to see state steward Walter Blum and asked breathlessly, "What are you going to do about that?"
"About what?" Blum responded, blankly.
I pointed to the horse's past performances, and mentioned that a similar thing had happened with another horse under the same trainer the week before. Blum looked at me as if I were mentally defective and patiently explained all the things that legitimiately cause a sharp form reversal. He was reciting all the lame explanations that the jockey or trainer would have given him had he interrogated them.
But by not even asking any questions, Blum and his fellow stewards were sending a message to the Florida racing community: Just about anything goes.
Just as kids who rob ill-protected 7-Elevens may gain confidence and grow up to be bank robbers, jockeys who get away with routine forms of race track larceny can develop contempt for the rules and grow more brazen.
This, I believe, is what caused Maryland's greatest racing scandal. For years, my colleague Clem Florio had pointed out to me certain prominent jockeys who occasionally put their mounts under hammerlocks. The wrongdoing was not of epidemic proportions, but it was fairly routine. If Colwill and his associates noticed such activity, they never did anything about it.
And so, on St. Valentine's Day, 1975, at Bowie, riders with mounts in the ninth race could sit in the jockey's room and casually chat about who was and was not going to win. They pooled their money and bet so clumsily, so obviously, that they weren't even worried about covering their tracks.
They could engage in a felonious conspiracy so offhandedly only in an environment where they thought anything goes. When the scandal blew up, three jockeys went to jail and another killed himself. The Maryland stewards shared a measure of responsibility for permitting the climate in which this could happen.
Why don't stewards try to enforce the rules? The reasons may have to do with their basic loyalties. In Maryland, stewards are paid by the tracks and they are invariably good house men. It is in the tracks' interest to keep the game running without scandal, to keep the money flowing smoothly. Stewards don't want to rock the boat.
Moreover, most stewards lack familiarity with the betting and handicapping aspects of the game, often considering it beneath their dignity. But if a man does not understand form, he is not going to be able to recognize a suspicious, possibly larcenous, form reversal.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for the racing industry's law-enforcement problems. Most stewards are well-entrenched in their jobs and even if they weren't, it would not be easy to find competent, vigilant men to take their places. But as long as racing is supervised by officials who don't officiate, the sport is sure to be plagued by recurrent scandals.