Chalk up a victory for Maryland's racetrack stewards who have, at times, had their judgment questioned, and occasionally overturned, by the Maryland Racing Commission.
A circuit court judge has reinforced the stewards' power by stating, in a unique Maryland judicial ruling, that he agreed with previous opinions from similar cases in other jurisdictions that "the commission has no power or authority to upset a [stewards'] judgment call."
The decision, made by Judge John Grason Turnbull II in Baltimore County Circuit Court, came after he reviewed an appeal lodged in a race 15 months ago that involved several horse racing celebrities.
The race, a $75,000 stakes race named the Martha Washington Handicap, was run Oct. 22, 1989, at Laurel and was convincingly won by the French-based filly, Lady Winner. The horse, saddled by internationally-acclaimed trainer Maurice Zilber and ridden by Kent Desormeaux, the Eclipse Award-winning "boy wonder" of the local jockey colony, was the heavy 2-5 favorite.
But the stewards made the unpopular decision to disqualify Lady Winner and place her last, after Desormeaux squeezed through a narrow opening on the rail, and impeded, they said, longshot Bearing Testamony, who subsequently finished sixth in the six-horse field.
Zilber, furious at the stewards' decision, appealed the case to the racing commission, and flew in expressly from Paris last May to attend the hearing. He disputed the stewards' contention that the opening was too small for Desormeaux to go through. "That's what makes him a great jockey," Zilber said.
The commissioners, perhaps swayed by the world-class credentials of both the trainer and jockey, agreed, by a 3-2 vote.
The owners of the second- and third-place horses then lodged what became a successful court appeal.
Turnbull said the commission merely reached a different conclusion from that of the stewards and that the stewards' decision took precedence.
If not, Turnbull said, the decision of the stewards would be nothing more than "a mere whistle-stop" prior to "a never-ending flow" of appeals to the commission.
"Stewards, not the commission nor this court, are cloaked with the authority and expertise to make decisions immediately after objections are rendered [in a race] and those findings of facts should not be disturbed," Turnbull said.
The judge's ruling should now give more muscle to the stewards' decisions and could also cut down on the number of appeals heard by the commission.