The hottest film in Hollywood today was a slow-motion screening of the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Owners, trainers and jockeys crammed into a small projection room to watch Wild Again, Slew o' Gold and Gate Dancer bump each other through the stretch run of Saturday's historic race. Gate Dancer had been disqualified for fouling Slew o' Gold, but plenty of people thought that Wild Again was just as guilty, that his number should have come down, too, with Slew o' Gold being declared the winner.
Slew o' Gold's owners, Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill, had requested this morning's review of the decision, and when the session was over they still weren't happy. But most observers -- even Gate Dancer's trainer, Jack Van Berg -- had to concur that the stewards made the right call.
As Slew o' Gold and Wild Again turned into the stretch, they were racing close to each other and occasionally making contact. "Up to the sixteenth pole," said steward Alfred Shelhamer, "there was incidental contact, not enough to warrant a disqualification. In the final sixteenth of a mile something definitely happened."
The real trouble began when Gate Dancer made his move, drew abreast of the leaders and looked for a moment as if he were going to blow past them. But then he started to display the bad habit that had plagued him through the Triple Crown series, and started to lug in toward the horses next to him.
Over and over, the films showed the space separating the three horses growing tighter and tighter, until Slew o' Gold's jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., was squeezed back in the final yards. But Shelhamer told the audience, "Just watch the harrow marks."
The tractors used for maintenance purposes leave lines on the racing strip, and by watching those lines it was possible to see that Wild Again was keeping a straight course. "You couldn't ask a rider to hold a horse any straighter," said former jockey Bill Hartack, now a patrol judge here.
Just before the wire, Wild Again did angle his shoulder toward Slew o' Gold, and it was at that moment Cordero virtually stood in the irons. But Slew o' Gold was a beaten horse at that point, and Wild Again's transgression was minute.
"Horses never run 100 percent straight," Hartack said. "Wild Again varied no more than this much" -- he held his hands six inches apart -- "and it would have been a miscarriage of justice to take his number down."
Taylor had a different interpretation of the events. He thought Wild Again was leaning forcefully on Slew o' Gold throughout the whole stretch run, and that Slew o' Gold didn't show any visible effects because he is such a big, strong horse. If Slew o' Gold had been smaller and less competitive, Taylor said, he would have been squeezed out of contention much earlier, and the foul would have been much more obvious.
"By the stewards' logic, they made the right decision," Taylor said. "Wild Again did keep a straight course -- at our expense. But in New York his number would have come down."
The controversy over the disqualification in the Breeders' Cup overshadowed the fact that Wild Again ran a superb race and was by far the best horse on Saturday. He battled for the early lead with tough speed horses at a suicidal pace, put them away and still held off the challenge of the favorites, who had enjoyed relatively easy trips until the eventful stretch run.
How was he able to pull such a stunning upset? The Teletimer revealed the answer. The winner ran in a slow 2:03 2/5 for the 1 1/4 miles, a full second worse than the filly Princess Rooney ran earlier in the day. Clearly, neither Gate Dancer nor Slew o' Gold was anywhere near his top form.
Van Berg may have made a miscalculation with Gate Dancer, bringing him into this tough race after a seven-week absence of competition. He should have exploded past the leaders, but he may not have been fit enough. (Precisionist, another formidable horse, ran dismally after a seven-week layoff since the Super Derby.)
The cause for Slew o' Gold's poor performance is no mystery. He has been plagued by foot problems all season, and on the day before the Breeders' Cup his vet had to patch another crack in the wall of his hoof. In his best form he almost surely would have won decisively on Saturday. But today's films showed that he did not deserve the help of the stewards to finish first.