Racing officials in Florida redressed an injustice yesterday and made Chief's Crown the official winner of the Flamingo Stakes.
The colt had been disqualified after leading all the way in the March 30 race because the Hialeah stewards thought he had interfered with Proud Truth during the stretch drive. They were the only people who thought so, however. The decision was so blatantly wrong that it caused a storm of protest and led to yesterday's 1 1/2-hour hearing.
Yet even though justice was done, the action of the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering creates a dangerous precedent. It almost ensures that future tough calls by racetrack stewards will be the subject of appeals and litigation. Moreover, the hearing ducked the key issue in the whole Flamingo fiasco: the judgment of the stewards.
Robert Rosenberg, head of the Division of Parimutuel Wagering, secured an agreement from the owners of the first three finishers in the Flamingo that they would abide by the result of this hearing and not appeal it to the courts. Then he brought three retired stewards to Hialeah to serve as his "jury." They watched the films of the race and saw Chief's Crown drift out into the path of Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey, while staying about two lengths clear of them.
They saw Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey jostling each other. Then, they questioned the jockeys of the three horses.
Jorge Velasquez, the rider of Proud Truth, maintained that the leader had bothered him on three occasions. Don MacBeth, the jockey on Chief's Crown, said he was sufficiently clear of the other horses that no foul was committed.
When the testimony was finished, Rosenberg told his three experts -- Cal Rainey, Leo O'Donnell and Myron Davis -- to leave the room and adjudicate the foul claim all over again. "Don't base your decision on the fact that you would be overturning the stewards' decision," he instructed. "If you were watching this race for the first time, how would you judge it?"
The three men didn't need more than 10 minutes.
"We decided that Chief's Crown is the winner," Davis announced. "To us, the jockey on Proud Truth never looked like he stopped riding or took hold of his horse."
Rainey added, "When Chief's Crown came over he was quite a bit clear." They all agreed, too, that the bumping between Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey was partly caused by each of them.
After hearing the experts' opinions, Rosenberg immediately announced: "We rule that Chief's Crown is the winner of the Flamingo. Proud Truth is second and Stephan's Odyssey third."
Roger Laurin, the trainer of Chief's Crown, was understandably delighted. "I think it took a lot of courage for them to make this decision, but this was a blight that didn't deserve to be on the horse's racing record. It's a landmark that they were willing to correct this injustice."
Indeed, it was a landmark, a precedent-setting decision. But just what is the precedent? That racing commissions will hear appeals on any tough call made by the track stewards? That they will convene a panel of experts to second-guess the stewards in these cases? That they will do so only in cases when the aggrieved owners are wealthy and powerful?
Any sport would be thrown into utter chaos if the judgment calls of its officials could be appealed and overturned. What happened yesterday is as if baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth reversed the outcome of a game because films showed that an umpire had miscalled a key play. The disqualification of Chief's Crown was, similarly, a judgment call.
What Rosenberg should have been asking yesterday is how the stewards' judgment could be so bad. He might have discovered that the Flamingo decision wasn't even the worst of their rulings this winter. Walter Blum, the former jockey, is the state steward, and the most knowledgeable and influential of the officials. When he takes a day off, he is replaced by Dee Wade, the assistant chief of operations in Rosenberg's office, and when she has been in the stand the stewards' decisions have been exceedingly questionable.
One day at Gulfstream, a front-running filly named Miss Care swerved into the favorite, Statuesque, knocking her off stride while she was making a strong move, and beat her by a length. The stewards disallowed the foul claim. Even Blum was amazed when he watched the films the next day. Later in the season, with Wade replacing Blum again, Bolero's Business brushed against a 68-to-1 shot, Prince Galavant, who was going nowhere. Prince Galavant's jockey claimed no foul, and told the stewards the horse hadn't been bothered. The winner's number came down. On the day of the Flamingo, Wade was substituting again for Blum, whose mother had died that week.
Nothing can damage the public's confidence in the fairness of the sport so much as officials who are inconsistent or incompetent. While yesterday's hearing had the effect of giving the $150,000 Flamingo purse from one multimillionaire to another, it didn't alter the result for the thousands of people who bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on the race, not only at Hialeah but at tracks around the country where the Flamingo was simulcast. They were irrevocably cheated by the bad judgment of Wade and company.
Yesterday's hearing at Hialeah made up for only a fraction of the injustices done in the Flamingo and set a dangerous precedent for cases where the stewards' decision is truly a borderline call. Instead of having a thorough appellate process, what Florida and the rest of the racing world need are competent stewards who can render decisions that don't need to be appealed.