By T. D. Thornton
The accident and disqualification of the winner in last Saturday's GI TVG.com Haskell S. at Monmouth Park has rocketed to the top of racing's recent controversies, chiefly because of the polarizing role that New Jersey's newly implemented anti-whipping role may or may not have played in the stretch-run spill.
Since the start of the 2021 meet at Monmouth, whipping a Thoroughbred has been strictly prohibited, except for the express purpose of ensuring the immediate safety of the horse or rider.
As three horses battled for the lead in the stretch run of the Haskell, Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow) and Flavien Prat shifted in, causing Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) to clip heels and dislodge jockey Paco Lopez, who escaped serious injury.
Before the stewards even adjudicated the DQ of Hot Rod Charlie from first to last, fervent debate began on social media over whether or not Prat could have or should have used his whip to keep his mount running straight–and whether or not such striking would have been considered allowable safety-related whip usage by the stewards.
During Wednesday's New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) meeting, Dennis Drazin, the chairman and chief executive of the company that operates Monmouth Park, implored the commission to provide clarity one way or the other on that specific situation.
“Although Paco Lopez [said] that the whip rule had no role whatsoever in the incident, I've seen several statements from [Prat] attempting to blame the whip rule,” Drazin said. “And what he's saying is his horse started to drift in, [that] if he could have hit the horse once, the [accident and] DQ would not have happened.
“I know that the commission's rule would have permitted him, if he thought he was going to cause a [safety] problem, to hit the horse once,” Drazin continued. “So I'm wondering whether the commission would be willing [to], or have the stewards, give their view of the race. I know the stewards are going to be conducting a hearing whether to assess any penalties. But would the commission consider saying something about whether or not the rule had any involvement in what happened in the Haskell?
“Because rather than having the press go and speculate–and a lot of the public now is asking questions–it would provide some clarity if the commission felt that they or the stewards are able to say anything,” Drazin said.
Drazin had prefaced his remarks by saying that he understands the NJRC has a policy about not commenting on matters that are under appeal in a court of law. The Jockeys' Guild has lodged a legal challenge to the commission's rule that got voted in last September, and that case is currently winding through the New Jersey court system.
Judith Nason, the NJRC's executive director, at first responded to Drazin's request by outlining the hearing process for riding infractions.
“At this point, the stewards are issuing a notice of hearing,” Nason said. “They're going to be conducting a hearing with the jockeys to review what happened in the race. So at this point, the commission cannot really discuss what happened. We need to let the procedure play out. We will go to a hearing. We will hear what our stewards have to say and what they believe, you know, caused the incident.”
Drazin politely interjected to ask Nason if once that hearing process has been completed, “could it be made public” how the stewards plan to interpret whip usage in scenarios like the stretch run of the Haskell.
Nason instead answered that stewards rulings are always made public. But it was clear that was not what Drazin–an attorney by trade–was asking.
“Yes, I recognize that,” Drazin replied. “But I don't know whether you will have the stewards address whether the whip rule had any role in this. That's the part that I'm asking to get some clarity from either the stewards or the commission, so the public understands the truth of what happened.”
Nason told Drazin that, “We will discuss it with our stewards, and we need to take it one step at a time. Let them conduct the hearing and then find out, because right now they're reviewing the race from all the different angles.”
Then Nason jumped to another thought about how that adjudicatory process might get drawn out even longer.
“And I imagine–for example, I don't want to get out in front–but if they were to find a riding violation and issue a penalty, at that point I believe the penalty and the violation may be appealed,” Nason said. “So I hear your concern, and if it comes to pass that we can make a statement, we will do so.”
Then Nason added another reason why the commission couldn't immediately comment on its own rule.
“But we do need to run this by, you know, [the attorney general's deputy] representing the commission [and] take their advice,” Nason said.
“I do understand that,” Drazin replied. “I just see a legal distinction between talking about a matter that's on appeal and talking about an incident that's happened since that time.
Drazin continued: “I'm just saying that if, in fact, the attorney general signs off on it, and everyone at the commission thinks it's a good idea, I wanted to bring to your attention that I think it would be meaningful to the public to get some clarity from our regulator about what happened instead of listening to the Guild go out there and blame this [restrictive whipping rule].”
Nason closed out the matter without saying one way or another if the commission would eventually provide Drazin's requested clarification.
“We will certainly consult with, you know, our deputy attorney general and we will consider that,” Nason said.
None of the New Jersey commission members spoke or offered any input during this exchange.