Horseplayers frequently grumble about the decisions of racetrack stewards. But one particular type of decision always leaves bettors decrying the stewards' lack of consistency and plain common sense. It was typified when the horses Preminger and Cooking the Books battled down the stretch at Saratoga recently.

Jockey Eibar Coa sent Preminger to the lead in the 11/8-mile race as Richard Migliore positioned Cooking the Books on the rail behind him. Preminger went a bit wide as he turned into the stretch; Cooking the Books moved inside him and momentarily put his head in front. The leader was equal to the challenge. He repulsed the bid, moved ahead by nearly a length and appeared to be on his way to a victory.

But as Coa whipped right-handed, his mount drifted toward the rail -- and into the path of his rival. Migliore snatched the reins, perhaps dramatizing the incident for the stewards' benefit, then finished 21/4 lengths behind the winner. To most neutral observers, these facts were apparent:

1. Preminger and Coa had committed a foul by cutting in front of his rival and taking his path.

2. The foul had no effect on the outcome of the race, for Cooking the Books had finished second and would have finished second in a cleanly run race.

When the stewards posted the "Inquiry" sign, bettors might well have wondered what standards they would apply. Sometimes racing officials seem to forgive a foul if a horse was clearly superior; sometimes they disqualify the offender. Jockeys are as confused as horseplayers. "You don't know, from one day to the next, what's a foul," said Migliore, who was disqualified earlier in the meeting for a seemingly irrelevant foul after winning by three lengths.

Preminger's number was taken down, and the second-best horse was made the official winner. Disgruntled bettors cited other races where stewards forgave much more flagrant fouls.

What should stewards do when a clearly superior winner commits a foul? And why can't stewards be consistent in their policy?

Those questions are more complex than they might appear. All racing stewards are bound by rules governing the sport in their state, and those rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Across the country, said Dan Fick, chairman of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program, the most common standard is that "if you cost another horse a chance to finish higher in the money, your number should come down." (Thus, if the foul had caused Cooking the Books to finish third rather than second, a disqualification would have been warranted.) For most of the sport's history in New York, the rule on the books was essentially this: "A foul is a foul, period." That standard was changed after a disqualification that became a cause celebre at Saratoga in 2002. According to the official chart, the 53/4-length winner Silver Squire "lugged in a bit while blowing by the leaders and was stripped of his victory after a disqualification." Migliore -- who was the central figure in that case, too -- ripped a phone out of the wall in the jockeys' room when his number came down.

Now the New York rules give stewards the latitude to use their discretion. Steward Ted Hill explained, "If it is our judgment that a foul did not affect the order of finish, we do not have to take the number down." That rule should let the stewards uphold the victory of a horse such as Preminger. But, Hill fretted, "The [new] rule puts us on a slippery slope."

He recalled some recent races at Belmont Park when a horse appeared clearly beaten in the final furlong, then unexpectedly surged back to win. "That stuck in my mind," Hill said. "You have to be careful when you decide a foul did not affect the order of finish, when you say that a horse who was beaten was a dead horse."

Certainly, one could look at races such as the one involving Preminger and Cook the Books and imagine that that horse could make an unexpected rally after appearing to be beaten. But if stewards regularly think this way, they will make the wrong decision in the majority of cases.

There is a common-sense standard that should apply at every track in America: A winner should not be disqualified for a foul that does not affect the order of finish. If a horse has made a decisive move to the lead near the finish line, and then interferes with the rival he is passing, he should be forgiven -- as long as the loser finishes second. If the jockey has been guilty of reckless riding, the stewards can punish him without changing the order of finish.

Maybe it's not the perfect system -- nothing could be. But such standards would be much better than the current inconsistent practices that so often wind up penalizing bettors who have wagered on the best horse.