Even before the horses had crossed the finish line at Detroit Race Course, the crowd had started booing. In the press box writers were laughing and agreeing that they had never seen anything like it.

The fourth race at Detroit on July 1, a rock-bottom claiming event for fillies and mares, looked like a racetrack's version of "the gang that couldn't shoot straight." It was so flagrantly and clumsily larcenous that anybody should have been able to see that it wasn't on the level. Even a steward.

"Right out of the gate you could tell what was happening," said Gene Guidi, turf writer for the Detroit Free Press. "Even the fans picked up on it."

One horse was checked sharply as he came out of the gate.Another started to go ridiculously wide. A jockey who had daylight in front of him steered his mount into heavy traffic. And in the stretch, the rider of one horse who was getting too close to the lead stood up in the irons and yanked the reins.

While all this was going on in the rear of the field, a filly named Cotton Up was winning at surprisingly low odds of 4 to 1 while Touch of Velvet ran second at 13 to 1. The $3 exacta figured to pay $175 or thereabouts.

When the result was official and the tote board said the exacta paid $59, the crowd booed more and, Guidi said, "I knew I'd seen a boat race."

The reporter raced to the stewards' office. There he would see evidence of a well-documented phenomenon: even though recent trials have disclosed evidence of many race-fixings around the country, stewards never, ever see anything wrong.

"I don't believe it!" Guidi exclaimed as he and a steward watched the film of jockey John Rupert standing up in the irons through the stretch.

"The horse was trying to get out all the way," the steward said, suggesting that the jockey had to stand up to control the animal and stop him from drifting wider.

They looked at film that showed jockey Jeff Anderson keeping the favorite on the rail -- the worst part of the tract at Detroit -- and then steering him behind the other horses.

"He might have been trying to stay away from a horse who was lugging in," a steward suggested.

Like so many racing officials, the Detroit stewards were mouthing the alibis that the jockeys would have given them. Guidi was appalled. He wrote a story detailing what he had seen and how the stewards had reacted to the race, and the Detroit Free Press splashed it under a banner headline.

Then the stewards became paragons of vigilance. The next day, they got a report from the track's mutuels department that revealed unusual betting patterns on the race; someone had bet a pair of $600 exactas combining Cotton Up with two other horses.

Then the stewards summoned three jockeys and their lawyers, interrogated them and finally handed six-month suspensions to Rupert and Anderson. The jockeys may have owned their much-deserved fate as much to Guidi as to the stewards.