Horse racing is it something of a crossroads

When it comes to the future of horse racing as a viable wagering sport, everyone and his stable pony agree that assuring the public that races are run and decided cleanly is a top priority.

Everyone, it seems, but the stewards at Saratoga racecourse last Saturday. For despite glaring evidence that the apparent winner of one of the day’s feature events had all but mugged the runner-up in the final stages of the race, the New York Racing Association’s three on-duty stewards incredibly let the result stand.

Tens of thousands of wagerers were rightly horrified at being robbed by this mind-boggling piece of misjudgment by three presumably experienced racing officials. The rest were left shell-shocked at the inevitable conclusion that the result of one of the biggest races of the season for 3-year-old fillies, featuring a highly-publicised match-up between two of the nation’s best, was essentially illegitimate.

And at a time when horse racing’s dominance as the leading wager-based sport faces serious attack from newly-legalized national sports betting, conclusions like that could be flat-out disastrous.

In the last furlong of the Grade One Personal Ensign Stakes, 3/5 favorite Abel Tasman was under strong challenge down the stretch from 9/5 second-pick and arch-rival Elate. With 100 yards to go and Elate gaining to within a half-length, the favorite suddenly shifted two paths outwards, colliding with Elate and slowing her momentum. Elate was unable to re-rally and failed to win by only a neck.

Elate’s jockey Jose Ortiz lodged an immediate objection and the head-on replay clearly showed Abel Tasman under Mike Smith not only shifting ground noticeably and making solid contact with Elate at the 16th pole but also physically blocking her remaining established path to the post. It looked a near-certainty that the result would be overturned and Elate declared the winner – to all but the NYRA’s version of the three wise monkeys, who ruled there was insufficient interference to overturn the result.

You might expect that the howls of protest that met this amazing blunder would now be drowned out by urgent pleas not just to remove the three but to open up stewards’ deliberations to serious scrutiny, like televising objection deliberations live over the video feed as they do in Australia. Racing officials might squirm under the spotlight but at least the wagerers – whose bets, after all, keep oats in the horses’ buckets – might feel that their intelligence is no longer being insulted by a secretive and dubious process. It might even give them enough reassurance to actually return to the tote windows.

Racing’s leaders will surely not stand by while the sport’s already shady image is darkened further by the Personal Ensign Stakes fiasco. And with the upcoming NFL and NBA seasons set to cannibalize racetrack betting handles over the next two months, they will surely push for reforms to increase racing’s transparent and accountable to the wagerers who have kept it on life-support for decades.

But given their shoulder-shrugging responses to similar controversies in recent years, I wouldn’t bet on that.

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Rob Luke has been analysing, betting on and writing about horse racing for the past 45 years on three continents. He grew up following small country racetracks in his native Australia, was interrupted by a stint of several years in Hungarian harness racing and has focused on North American thoroughbreds for the past two decades. He identifies with and reports from the perspective of wagerers, is an enthusiastic player of handicapping tournaments and will expound at length on the betting value of pari-mutuel daily doubles.

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