SYDNEY -- When an odds-on favorite named Historically lost a race here, horseplayers did what their counterparts anywhere in the world would have done: They cursed his jockey.
One week earlier, jockey Ron Durden had won a steeplechase aboard Historically by leading all the way. Now, in a similar spot in which the horse looked unbeatable, Durden put him under wraps and permitted a rival, Snow Gypsy, to open a 15-length lead. Historically never had a chance of catching him.
Almost anywhere else in the world, bettors would have harbored dark suspicions about that race that would never be resolved. In the United States, stewards rarely probe even the most flagrant form reversals, and never question run-of-the-mill bad rides that cost a horse a victory. In Australia, however, the system works differently.
Moments after Durden dismounted, he was summoned to the stewards' room, which is located just a few yards from the jockeys' quarters. Reporters followed him to the hearing room, for stewards' inquiries here are open to the press. Durden sat at a table facing six officials, but the eyes boring into him were those of chief steward John Schreck, a man dubbed by the press as "Sheriff Schreck" for his commitment to law and order on the track.
The sheriff peered over his spectacles. "We are concerned," he said gravely, "with the manner in which you rode your horse." Schreck proceeded to grill Durden about every aspect of his ride. He played films of the race, from various camera angles, in slow motion and stop-action, quizzing Durden point by point. Meanwhile, another official was leafing through computer printouts of the betting patterns on the race.
When Schreck finished his interrogation, he decided the jockey had been at least partly excused because of trouble his horse had encountered early in the race, and his conclusions appeared in the regular "Stewards' Report" that was made public the next day:
"When questioned, Durden explained. . . . that he endeavoured to go forward, but was inconvenienced by a riderless horse. . . . As he was trying to pull the whip through into his left hand, it became entangled in the reins and the horse's mane. . . ."
Losing bettors still might not have been happy, but at least they knew the race had been investigated and they had the satisfaction of an explanation.
When I came to Australia to play the horses, I expected the game would include a fair amount of dishonesty, because there is so much money to be won here. Perpetrators of a slick coup could collect millions by betting with bookmakers around the country. So as I started to scrutinize the films of races for handicapping purposes, I looked hard for horses who were being restrained, or at least were being given lackadaisical rides, by their jockeys.
I have considerable experience and expertise in this department after watching so many races in Maryland. But to my surprise, I have scarcely seen a single ride in a month's time that I could describe as questionable. The reason is that the Australians are almost fanatical in their determination to keep the game free from any taint, and their system works because of the way the stewards operate.
At least six stewards watch a race, aided by a sophisticated set of nine cameras, and they consult immediately afterward to decide if they have any questions about any horse's or rider's performance. If so, Schreck said: "We take the view that it is better to strike when the iron is hot."
Jockeys and trainers are summoned almost immediately for questioning, with the press in attendance. These queries may yield the information that a horse threw a shoe during a race or bumped his head on the starting gate or came back lame -- and all of this will appear in the stewards' report.
But the stewards are looking mostly at jockeys. Schreck said that he puts questionable rides into three categories. At one end of the spectrum are simple errors of judgment, which usually won't be penalized. At the other end are out-and-out cases of larceny and he said: "These days, not much of that goes on." But the tough middle ground falls where a jockey doesn't seem to do enough to win a race, when he makes "a combination of errors beyond a reasonable degree."
Last year, one of Australia's leading jockeys, Jim Cassidy, was aboard a horse named Cruising and, Schreck recalled: "He came out of the gate slow. He didn't improve during the middle stages. He didn't ride the horse out satisfactorily in the straight." This sounded, in short, like the way certain jockeys at Laurel ride just about every day. They don't do it here. Cassidy was slapped with a one-year suspension.
That's why the jockeys are whipping and driving in the stretch, even when their mounts are clearly beaten. "Our system," Schreck said, "has a deterrent effect."
So even though bettors here, as everywhere, will denounce jockeys and will be slightly paranoid, Australian racing fans have a greater confidence in the basic integrity of the sport than their counterparts in most other nations. We suspicious souls from the United States would love to see some of our favorite jockeys placed on the same continent with Sheriff Shreck.