The general lack of racing around America in light of local restrictions due to the impact of COVID-19 has focused the attention of customers on a select number of races at any one time. A natural byproduct has been collective social media outrage at a pair of stewards' decisions which demoted winners, once Sunday at Oaklawn Park and another on Tuesday at Fonner Park.
This is not a story about the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation's suggestion that North America should shift its rules philosophy to the international standard–known as Category 1. If you would like to read more about that, please see our white paper “Changing the Rules,” originally published in November 2018.
This is about communication.
In both races, and a third on Thursday at Gulfstream Park, and almost every other such incident, an explanation of the decision of the stewards is often left to the track announcer, typically having informed by the stewards in some capacity about their decision.
Fonner Park Chief Executive Officer, Chris Kotulak, a former race caller and television analyst, explained that track's controversial stewards' decision from Tuesday's massive pick five sequence which handled roughly 15 times Fonner's average total daily handle from 2019. On “At the Races with Steve Byk” Wednesday morning, Kotulak noted details of his discussion with stewards and a review of their submitted report, while acknowledging frustrated customers.
That degree of insight is rare and welcomed, but it should not be the standard.
Some stewards offer details regarding their decisions online through reports published on the website of the track or their regulator. Stewards' decisions are published daily at the New York Racing Association tracks and also at Woodbine. They appear on a delay via the California Horse Racing Board website for races conducted in that state. The degree of detail and explanation vary, but are fairly limited.
In 2019, the stewards at Prairie Meadows in Iowa took to the microphone and actually explained their rationale after demoting the horse first past the post in the Iowa Derby. This event was notable for its rarity as well, and absolutely should be part of the standard applied by stewards.
Every stakeholder deserves to hear from the stewards who make the decision to change a result, shifting anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars in the process. It's just good service.
Do you really remember everything that happened associated with the demotion of Maximum Security in the GI Kentucky Derby? Think back to it. Watch the replay. Our white paper “Seeking Transparency” outlined 13 mistakes or oversights of the stewards that led to confusion, frustration, conspiracy theories, anger and disgust.
What was the worst part of the Derby demotion debacle? Consider that at no point, up until reading a prepared statement hours after the decision, did the stewards inform the public that there was an objection lodged by Jon Court, rider of 17th placer Long Range Toddy, or that the decision made was based on such a protest.
In the Kentucky Derby–on national television, with the most amount at stake in wagering from more than 30,000 races a year, not to mention the impact to a possible stallion career.
Stewards may feel uncomfortable in a public-facing role explaining such decisions. They may require advanced training on public speaking, working with media, addressing and overcoming objections in front of a camera or microphone.
These are natural reactions and can all be handled over time.
Fortunately, there are countless examples to follow that can inform the process.
Stewards from nearly every international jurisdiction publish reports on a daily basis offering specific insight to an inquiry or objection review, as well as many other matters that go wholly unaddressed publicly. Appendix B of “Seeking Transparency” offers a selection of those for your review. In many, stewards speak directly with media or on live broadcasts to explain decisions, either during or after racing. It is a common, everyday occurrence in places like Hong Kong and Australia. In others, the written reports offer more immediate detail with regularity.
Bringing stewards to the front of the sport and requiring them to explain decisions is good for everyone in racing. Surely those who fall short of the stakeholder expectations will need to improve to maintain their roles. This is part of the normal process for nearly all professional sports, with officiating reviews by those who are judged and those who empower.
This is one relatively simple way we can start taking our sport more seriously than ever before.