When the stewards disqualified the wrong horse in a race here Saturday, their mistake epitomized one of the greatest problems of thoroughbred racing: the arrogance, the indifference to the public and the frequent incompetence of the men who oversee the game.

The stewards watched the films of the second race that clearly showed Syntonic, wearing saddlecloth No. 11, bump a rival and knock her through the hedge of the turf course. There probably weren't three other people in the entire track who could have confused No. 11 with winner Allumeuse, No. 8, who was not involved in the incident. But the three men in the booth disqualified No. 8.

The Saratoga stewards have received none of the sympathy that a referee or umpire in another game might get after blowing a tough judgment call. Their blunder has touched off an outpouring of hostility from fans and track insiders who have longstanding grounds for resentment of racing officials.

In the otherwise democratic world of racing, stewards always are addressed as "Sir" or "Mister." Their judgments and decisions rarely are challenged or even questioned. Stewards, like the Pope, are presumed to be infallible.

Fans don't see much of the stewards' autocracy, but they get a sense of it in adjudication of foul claims. After Saturday's fiasco, a professional bettor offered this observation: "Whenever the stewards here post the 'Inquiry,' the horse is disqualified; it's as if they have their minds already made up. But when a jockey claims foul, the number almost never comes down. The stewards are always right and everybody else is always wrong."

Because of this attitude, the Saratoga stewards didn't even pay attention to the jockeys who were involved in the second race mishap and who tried to tell them that No. 8, Allumeuse, was not the culprit. And that is how people who bet the winner were cheated out of nearly $1 million in payoffs.

Some of these bettors once may have been naive enough to think that race track stewards are supposed to protect the public interest. In fact, stewards rarely do -- and that is the greatest problem with their role in U.S. racing.

When horses win races with outlandish and suspicious reversals of form, racing fans presume that the stewards will investigate the circumstances. They rarely do.

When a jockey appears to put a hammerlock on the horse he is riding, fans presume that the stewards will call him on the carpet. They rarely do.

Even if jockeys' thievery were to become habitual and widespread, stewards don't do anything about it. When race-fixing scandals develop, stewards rarely uncover them.

The job of stewards is to protect the interests of the people who pay them -- the state or the race track. They want to shield the industry from embarrassment or scandal; the customers for the most part are irrelevant. This attitude never has been clearer than it was at Saratoga on Saturday.

Steward Sal Ferrara said that he and his associates learned that they had made a mistake within 30 to 60 seconds after they had disqualified Allumeuse and made the second race official.

At this point all their choices were bad ones, but they should have immediately shut down the mutuel machines, stopped the payoffs and corrected their error. (Even though the rules say that once a race is official the results can't be changed, there is precedent for such an action. When an incorrect payoff was posted at Belmont this spring, betting was halted until the price was corrected.)

Some people would have thrown away their tickets, and the track would have been thrown into a state of turmoil, but at least the damage would have been minimized. Only a small percentage of the bettors would have been cheated out of their rightful winnings.

But the stewards' immediate instinct was to protect themselves and to protect the track -- and the public be damned. They delayed the videotape replay of the second race by 15 minutes. They made no announcement or admission that anything might be wrong. When the replays were finally shown, the head-on shots of the stretch run were deleted -- "for fear of possible rioting," Ferrara said.

Throughout the day the stewards refused to answer questions about their decision. But there was no way they could wriggle out of responsibility for their error, and after the final race they came to the press box to confess, "We blew it." By then, of course, the damage to the betting public was irreparable.

Almost any employe in any job would be fired for a blunder of similar magnitude, and these stewards should be fired, too. But that won't solve the real problem.

As long as racing officials can be appointed on the basis of political connections, as long as they don't feel any sense of responsibility to the betting public, stewards are going to cause embarrassments for the sport.

The only thing that will change after Saturday's debacle is the attitude of many of New York's racing fans. They never again will harbor illusions about stewards' competence or concern for the public.