My Old Kentucky Home

If you are any kind horseracing fan, you know that the 2019 Kentucky Derby generated more comment than any Derby since…I don’t know. Maybe the Derby when Eight Bells tragically went down past the wire. Maybe Dancer’s Image, the horse who gave the public the opportunity to say phenylbutazone fast three times. Maybe Secretariat winning a Derby in record time.

I’m not going to talk about which horse did what in the Derby last Saturday. We all know the story, we’ve seen the video(s), and we’ve beaten it to death in public fora. It was like that internet thing with the dress that was either blue and black or white and gold or red and pink. One of those color combos was right. If the Churchill stewards had gotten involved, 27 minutes later the dress dispute would have been settled permanently.

Ok. I said I wouldn’t bring up the Derby thing.

Here’s the issue.  Every state picks its own stewards. In Kentucky the Governor gets to pick two of the stewards (that makes them state employees), but the third steward is appointed by the host track. Saturday it was a man named Tyler Picklesimer, racing secretary at Turfway Park.

Somebody suggested the stewards should get training. In Kentucky, state regulations say a steward must have attended one of the two “steward/judge” schools it recognizes: one at the University of Louisville, the other the University of Arizona. Stewards also must pass written and oral exams administered by those schools. I don’t know the details on how difficult the steward classes are or what they cover. You can make up your own mind on whether your favorite steward aced or flunked steward school, but at least Kentucky is trying to project a professional image.

Which reminds me of a bad joke. What do they call the person who finished last in their medical school class?  The answer is Doctor.

Stewards must also pass an eye exam proving they have “corrected twenty-twenty vision and ability to distinguish colors.” I like that requirement. It reminds me of something Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd, a wrestler in the 60’s – 80’s who unforgettably mentioned his feelings about one of the referees by noting,  “he’s blind in one eye, and he cain’t see out of the other.”

There are a lot of arguments about who should be a steward or a racing commissioner. My experience is that it is hard to become a steward or commissioner without good connections. I don’t care how good you are at race-watching. If your competitor for a job as steward or commissioner worked on the Governor’s election campaign or was a beloved jockey, I have to inform you that your odds of getting appointed just went to 20-1.

There are questions that need to be answered. The biggest question is, how can the stewards be consistent  from state to state or even race to race? My suggestion is to have a national board that reviews the performance of the stewards (and/or commissioners) and then sends a report to the state Governor. Subsequently the Board can have an annual meeting with presentations on the findings for the year. This includes looking at every race where there was an inquiry or objection. Every steward (and potentially commissioner) has to be independently reviewed every three years (that would be around 30 tracks a year. I think that is very much doable.)  I don’t know why any state would resist such a board since the only power they would have is the power to report and recommend. They wouldn’t appoint any officials, and the decision as to which officials are replaced would still remain with the state appointing authorities. But – and this is a big but – the reports would be public.

There are only a few racing fans who are willing to spend their time working toward real change, change that will revitalize the sport. We’ve fallen into a pattern of too many patrons watching poor officials make wrong or inconsistent decisions and then doing nothing more than griping. This is unacceptable, and pushing for change is as much the the horseplayers responsibility as the horsemen. That’s why the National Evaluation Board makes sense. It leaves decisions to the states, but it makes sure the decision makers know whether or not their choices were good.

Regular racegoers worry that not only is racing being relegated to the back of the sports bus, we now have to compete head to head with sports betting. Every track has to be run properly, and Governor or no Governor, the people deciding that the winner of a $3 million race should be dropped behind all but two of the horses better be professionals beyond reproach.

One last thing. PETA would drool like a St. Bernard if they thought they could close tracks. Here’s my message to them. Don’t count us out quite yet.

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