SYDNEY -- Even the most hard-hearted jockey-haters had to feel a twinge of sympathy for Anthony Townsend last week.
The apprentice had committed an offense that would have gone unnoticed in most of the racing world: He had given an unenergetic ride to a hopeless, 330-1 shot. But because he did it in Australia, he was subjected to days of grilling by the stewards at Rosehill Racecourse. His case made headlines in all of the Sydney newspapers. People who understand the way the system works here predicted he had wrecked his career for good -- at the age of 19.
Until he climbed onto the back of long shot Golden Dragon, Townsend had had a typical life for an up-and-coming young rider. He grew up in the northern town of Casino and, because he was small, he went to work in the stables of his local track with the aim of becoming a jockey. He won many races at small country tracks, so he decided to take a crack at the tough competition in Sydney. His goals were prudent and modest: He hoped to do well enough to buy some property in Casino.
Riding at the major tracks in Australia is more challenging than in most other countries. The fields are large -- as many as 18 or 20 horses -- but saving ground on the turns is so important that the horses travel in a very tight pack. Jockeys don't have much margin for error, but when they commit errors the stewards will swiftly warn them or punish them for any reckless actions.
Townsend had been a frequent invitee to the stewards' room, where he was castigated for his lapses. He was enjoying a measure of success -- he was one of the leading apprentices in Sydney -- but the stewards may have been giving him special attention when he climbed onto the back of Golden Dragon.
The 3-year-old had finished 10th in the only previous race of his career, in June, and had been beset by physical problems since. Trainer Kerry Jordan knew the colt had virtually no chance in the race at Rosehill, and felt that his poor prospects were further hurt by an outside post position. He told Townsend before the race to avoid hustling him out of the gate and getting hung out wide around the turn. Instead, he instructed: "Get over to the fence and make ground from there on."
When the gate opened, Townsend followed the first part of these instructions, restraining Golden Dragon and angling toward the inside. When he turned into the stretch, he had ample running room, but he barely moved a muscle on the horse, and never seemed to make even a pro forma attempt to win. Golden Dragon came in 12th, and Townsend immediately got the summons to the stewards' room that must send chills down any young jockey's back.
And there, on the big video screen, Townsend got to watch himself and Golden Dragon over and over and over -- like a recurrent nightmare. The stewards dissected every phase of his ride. "Surely you could have done more on him, particularly between the 700 meters and the 600 meters and in the early part of the straight," chief steward John Schreck suggested.
Townsend couldn't deny the visual evidence was pretty damning. "Everything I did on this horse was the wrong choice," he told his interrogators.
It looked, the stewards were saying, as if something worse than bad judgment. It looked as if Townsend had pulled the horse -- or, in Australian parlance, given him a run.
Townsend acknowledged: "Well, looking at the film, it looks like I've given the horse a run."
"Be careful here, son," Schreck cautioned. He paused: "Did you give it a run?"
"No sir," the teenager said.
The stewards interrogated Townsend during five separate sessions on the day of the race. They held a special hearing two days later and threw the book at him, charging that "on five occasions during the race, Golden Dragon was not given full opportunity to win or obtain the best possible place in the Peter Roberts Plumbing Handicap."
A journalist covering the hearings predicted Townsend's fate: "He'll be out of racing for six to 12 months. And if that happens, he'll be finished in Sydney."
Of all the differences between Australian and U.S. racing that have struck me here, none has been so vivid as the vigilance of the stewards, and the Townsend case highlighted the rule that is the basis of their enforcement. Jockeys are obligated to ride their horses aggressively to the wire -- no ifs, ands or buts.
In the United States, jockeys regularly "wrap up" on horses who aren't fit, who are hard to ride or who are clearly beaten. And that is considered acceptable behavior. Here, there are no excuses for failing to persevere -- not even on a horse who is 20 lengths behind -- and a rider had better be able to present a strong explanation if he doesn't ride aggressively.
Yet the Townsend case also demonstrated one frightening aspect of the Australian system: The stewards possess enormous power, and if they did not wield it fairly and impartially, the system could be a travesty of justice.
There was a widespread outpouring of sympathy for Townsend. One journalist wrote a letter to the stewards, stressing: "He's a country boy still trying to learn." He said Townsend knew he had been getting into trouble by riding too aggressively and probably was overreacting when he found himself aboard a hard-to-handle horse like Golden Dragon.
Townsend was quiet and ashen when he entered the stewards' room and heard Schreck say: "The stewards have found you guilty as charged. This ride was unacceptable, but the rule under which you have been charged doesn't imply any evil intent has been carried out." Then he imposed the sentence: a two-month suspension -- not the long banishment that had been widely expected.
The stewards had tempered justice with mercy, and both the apprentice and his supporters were visibly relieved, if not jubilant. But there is surely no place else in the racing world where a jockey would feel happy at receiving "only" a two-month ban for a questionable ride on a 330-1 shot.