By Bill Finley
Why didn't the New York stewards disqualify Forte (Violence) from his win in a controversial running of the GII Jim Dandy S. Saturday at Saratoga? The wagering public bet $3,167,647 on the race and that doesn't include any of the horizontal wagers. After Forte and Irad Ortiz Jr. bulled their way off of the rail near the top of the stretch, bumped Angel of Empire (Classic Empire) and took away his path, it looked like the horse deserved to come down. But that didn't happen.
The bettors deserved an explanation. But none has been offered or, likely, ever will be.
Racing needs to do a better job with this. In the four major sports, when the umpires or referees review the replay of a play, they are required to announce their decision to the fans in the stands and those watching at home. They don't just tell you whether a player was safe or out, but why he was safe or out. The fan may or may not agree with the call, but, at least, they know why the officials ruled the way they did.
At Saratoga? Crickets.
Any time there is an inquiry or an objection, whether a horse is disqualified or not, the stewards should be required to come on in-house television and explain why they made the call that they did. It doesn't have to be that difficult or complicated. Something like, “the four horse bore in in the stretch, caused the jockey on the three horse to steady and cost that horse second-place, and that's why we disqualified the four horse and placed him third,” would suffice.
After the running of the 2019 GI Kentucky Derby, the Churchill Downs stewards disqualified Maximum Security (New Year's Day) and placed him 17th for interference. It took them an agonizing 22 minutes to reach a decision and they were not required to make their reasoning public. Worse yet, they met with the media and Kentucky Horse Racing Commission steward Barbara Borden read a brief and meaningless statement and refused to answer any questions.
The situation couldn't have been handled any more poorly, but at least they tried do better going forward. There have been instances at the Kentucky tracks when the stewards have gone on television to explain their rulings and the stewards there publish a daily report on the racing commission website which offers a brief explanation for any decisions they made during the course of a card.
The New York stewards could do the same thing, but they've apparently stopped trying. Starting in September of 2016, the NYRA website started posting what it called the Stewards' Corner, which offered explanations of the decisions made by the stewards during a race day.
This is what was posted for the 10th race on July 9, 2022.
“Stewards' inquiry into the stretch run. Late stretch #12 Heymackit'sjack (Irad Ortiz Jr.) drifts out under left handed crop forcing #5 Feathers Road(Jose Lezcano) to take up. After reviewing the video and speaking to the riders involved, the Stewards felt that #12 Heymackit'sjack did cost #5 Feathers Road a placing. #12 was disqualified from 2nd and placed 4th. The race was made official 4-1-5-12.”
That was the last item posted to the Stewards' Corner. Every decision since has gone unexplained. Why?
Such information is especially important in a situation like the Jim Dandy, a race in which the consensus seems to be that they made the wrong call. Here is the New York Gaming Commission rules regarding when a horse comes over and bothers another horse: “A horse crossing another may be disqualified, if in the judgment of the stewards, it interferes with, impedes or intimidates another horse, or the foul altered the finish of the race.”
Isn't that exactly what happened when it comes to Forte and Angel of Empire? Ortiz clearly came over, bumped and pushed Angel of Empire out, and could have cost him a placing. Despite the incident, Angel of Empire finished third and lost by just a half-length.
Worse yet, on Thursday at Saratoga, Ortiz was involved in an incident very similar to what happened in the Jim Dandy and, this time, was taken down. It happened in the seventh race, a $25,000 claimer, and Ortiz was riding a horse named Eyes on Target (Exaggerator). Ortiz got his horse hemmed in on the inside, but muscled his way out in the stretch, came over a couple of paths and bothered two horses. Eyes on Target was disqualified and placed eighth. Why was Thursday's incident cause for a DQ, but the Jim Dandy incident was not?
The stewards are allowed to make mistakes and dealing with Ortiz cannot be easy. He might be the most talented jockey in the sport, but he has no problem crossing the line. Many believe he does what he does because the NYRA stewards don't hold him accountable. Which takes us back to the Jim Dandy? Do they give Ortiz more leeway than other jockeys? Are they less inclined to take a horse down in a major race like the Jim Dandy than in a $25,000 claimer on a quiet Thursday afternoon? Or did they have a good reason for not taking Forte down, one that, when explained, might have shed some light on why they ruled the way they did?
Wouldn't it be nice to know?
Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil is a Rock Star
When Jason Servis was sentenced to four years in prison Wednesday by Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, it marked the final chapter in the long and sordid affair that began in March of 2020 when more than two dozen individuals were arrested on charges related to using performance-enhancing drugs on race horses. Getting caught was the worst thing that could have happened to these cheats. The second worst was that their cases were heard by Vyskocil.
One after another, they paraded in and out of her courtroom in lower Manhattan with their excuses and mea culpas, some of which included the defendants breaking down in tears. From the judge, they asked for some compassion and some leniency. They never got any. Not a one of them.
“You cheated, you lied and you broke the law,” Vyskocil told Servis. “You did endanger the horses in your care. Luckily, they didn't break down. You tried to gain an unfair advantage. I hope you accept that, but I don't think that you do. At the end of the day, unquestionably, you undermined the integrity of horse racing.”
It was what we had come to expect from the judge. She got it. These people were lairs and cheaters who broke the law and there was no defending what they did. And they were people who put the lives of the horses they were entrusted with in danger by using potent drugs that had the capability of doing great damage to the animal. She bristled any time one of the defendants told the court how much they loved their horses.
“You also demonstrated, Mr. Navarro, a collective, callous disregard for the well-being of the horses,” she told Jorge Navarro before sentencing him to five years in prison. “The bottom line is you likely killed or endangered the horses in your care.”
She said she would have liked to give Navarro more than five years, but that was the maximum sentence she was able to hand down. Servis also got the maximum sentence. Now, Navarro is rotting away in a federal prison and, in November, Servis will begin serving his term. They got what they deserved and that's because they came before a judge who clearly understood what had transpired and how awful these crimes were.