Watching the Wheels

Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

What’s in a Rule?

Category 1 and Category 2 rules can create different outcomes

When Perfect Sting inherited a victory via disqualification in the $148,332 Tarport Effrat leg of the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes at The Meadows on June 26, the real story was hidden just beneath the headlines.

Last year’s 2-year-old male pacing champion entered the race with a nearly perfect mark of 11 wins in 12 starts, and few expected the less-heralded Rockyroad Hanover, at 11-1 on the toteboard, to get to the wire before the Dan Patch Award winner.

That he did surprised more than a few people, but that wasn’t what got people talking. It was the fact that Rockyroad Hanover, clearly the better horse on this day, was placed fifth by the judges after becoming briefly rough-gaited on the final turn, causing minor interference to three horses—Southwind Gendry, Lou’s Pearlman and, most notably, 54-1 longshot Literl Lad Hanover—that seemingly did not at that point have realistic chances to win the race but were in contention for minor honors.

Perfect Sting was perfectly clear of the incident, unaffected by the momentary traffic jam that ensued behind him, but was elevated to first after Rockyroad Hanover’s demotion.

Let’s put this out there immediately. Presiding Judge Doug Thomas and his colleagues in the Meadows stand made the right call. Rockyroad Hanover did cause interference, and the judges correctly did place the horse behind the horses with which he interfered.

The rule is cut and dried, but while its application undoubtedly pleased Literl Lad Hanover’s owners, who will appreciate the fourth-place check of $11,866, a four-thousand-dollar-plus improvement over what they would have received for a fifth-place finish, it surely rankled anyone who wagered upon Rockyroad Hanover, a convincing first-place finisher that somehow didn’t even wind up as part of the trifecta.

The placings illustrated the difference between Category 1 rules, which are in place throughout most of the racing world, and Category 2 rules, which hold sway in the United States, Canada, and just about nowhere else.

Category 1 gives judges the discretion to determine whether the fouled horse(s)—in this case, Southwind Gendry, Lou’s Pearlman, and Literl Lad Hanover—would have finished ahead of the offending horse (Rockyroad Hanover) had the interference not occurred. If the answer is no, the result stands as is, although the judges may subsequently fine or suspend the driver for his or her actions.

In the case of Rockyroad Hanover, judges employing the Category 1 standard very likely would have left his number up. It is virtually impossible to argue that any of the aggrieved trio would have won the race, even absent the interference.

Category 2, however, is more severe. USTA Rule § 18.04 stipulates that “In the event a horse is set back…he must be placed behind the horse with which he interfered.”  That’s Category 2 at its most basic, and it is the law of the land here in the United States.

As applied to Rockyroad Hanover, Category 2 rules made things simple. The horse’s actions did impact Literl Lad Hanover, who had to back up at a crucial point nearing the final eighth of a mile and might otherwise have finished in a better position. Therefore, Rockyroad Hanover necessarily was placed behind Literl Lad Hanover.

Which set of rules works best for harness racing? The answer depends upon who you’re asking.

Horseplayers undoubtedly would prefer the Category 1 schedule, something that, over on the other side of the fence, the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF) has been advocating for several years now.

Headed by Pat Cummings, a bright guy and a former Hong Kong racing executive who also boasts an investment background, the TIF says that the adoption of Category 1 rules “would yield a sport with a greater understanding of how a race is adjudicated, far few instances in which the stewards are called upon to review a race, fewer demotions . . . and increased confidence for all stakeholders in the adjudication of the race.”

Put another way, Category 1 rules promote the idea that the best horse should win, and bettors supporting that horse should be rewarded for their acumen, regardless of ancillary happenings during the race that do not impact the pari-mutuel outcome.

Category 2 rules are more protective of owners, trainers and drivers, assuring financial remediation in the event of a racing foul, and ideally creating a climate that disincentivizes overly aggressive and dangerous driving on the track through the potential loss of purse money.

In the words of one New York racing official, “Our goal is to look out for the owners, the trainers, and the betting public. But we’re also looking out for the guys that don’t finish first. We’re looking out for the guys that finish second and third.”

We haven’t heard the last about this issue. You can bet on that.

Mike

The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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