For their roles in New York's race-fixing scandal, two prominent jockeys were suspended this week by the state's Racing and Wagering Board.
Jacinto Vasquez, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, was given a one-year suspension from racing for offering a bribe to a fellow rider. Mike Venezia was suspended for three months for failure to report a bribe. Both of the suspensions are scheduled to start Wednesday.
At one time, the decision of the racing authorities would have been final, and people within the sport could have congratulated themselves for cleaning their own house (although somewhat belatedly, since the offenses occurred in 1974). But any perceptive observer of the modern racing scene can now feel safe in laying 50 to 1 that Vasquez and Venezia will be riding next week. And next month. And next year.
Attorneys for both riders will go to court to appeal the racing commission's ruling. If the lawyers choose to use all the dilatory tactics at their disposal, the cases will drag on indefinitiely. Vasquez and Venezia will join the growing number of riders using the legal process to fight, thwart or simply delay decisions rendered by racing officials, and are creating a very difficult problem for the sport.
In a bygone era, stewards ruled with an iron hand. Their authority was rarely challenged, although sometimes they abused it. In his book, "Across the Board," Toney Betts describes how steward Marshall Cassidy suspended a jockey named Bobby Merritt whom he thought had "pulled" a horse. One of the counts in the indictment against the jockey said that "Merritt associated with Jews and Italians." Cassidy never conducted a hearing or presented any evidence against Merritt.
"We don't want to go back to those days," said Warren Schweder, vice president of the National Association of State Racing Commissioners, "when stewards looked down from their stand and pointed their finger and said, 'Out!' "
And, of course, we won't go back. In racing, as in every segment of society, citizens are now regularly going to court to appeal what they see as abridgments of their rights -- especially if it involves their right to turn a living.
After jockeys started seeking legal remedies for what they thought were unjust decisions by racing officials, they quickly saw that they could use the legal system to delay a punishment.
When Eddie Maple drew a routine suspension for rough riding this summer, he didn't want to miss the chance to ride Conquistador Cielo in stakes at Saratoga. So he appealed to the State Racing and Wagering Board, and when that body ruled against him, his attorney went to court to obtain a stay of the suspension. Five months later, Maple still hasn't served his time.
Now Angel Cordero is using the same dilatory tactics to avoid a suspension while he is trying to become the top money-winning rider of 1982. When jockeys can serve a suspension at their own convenience, the penalties lose a lot of their impact.
This week, an unexpected voice spoke up in opposition to the tactics that Maple, Cordero and other riders have been using. Nick Jemas, director of the Jockeys' Guild, remembers when jockeys had virtually no way to appeal unfair decisions and bristles at the right's abuse.
"I think it's very unfair for a jockey to get off the hook to ride other mounts," he said, and announced that the guild was going to try to curtail the practice. If a jockey thinks he has grounds for an appeal, his case will be reviewed by a committee of other riders. If that committee feels he doesn't have a case, the guild will not support him.
"It is not proper to abuse the basic right of appeal," Jemas said, "and such abuses will only hurt us in the long run."