On the surface, it seems as if the stewards at Laurel Park received an unmistakably harsh message from their employer -- the Maryland Racing Commission -- last week:
Wake up, and stop making bad calls.
No one spoke those words publicly, but it seemed the board gave a pretty strong indication of how it felt about some of the stewards' recent decisions when it overturned three of their judgement calls.
But that's not so, said Allan Levey, a member of the commission, who added that the other board members also felt that what happened was "an anomaly. We have 100 percent confidence in our stewards."
In one afternoon last week, the commission heard appeals of three cases in which owners felt their horses had been improperly disqualified. In each case, the commission agreed that the stewards had made the wrong decision.
"But," said Levey, "the stewards have a couple of minutes to make up their minds. We can spend a couple of hours."
Overturning the stewards' decisions can be great for some owners, who will now receive winning purses, but what about the fans who bet on those horses? There is no way for those bettors to retrieve their money. Once a horse is disqualified, numbers are irrevocably posted and paid.
Such reversals of officials' judgement call, despite some commissioners' protestations, shake the foundation of the sport and shatter the judges' credibility.
That's why there's a strong segment of the industry that feels the stewards' word should be final. After all, it is argued, in no other sport is an umpire or referee's call eligible to come up for review by a board of laymen sometimes weeks or even months after the infraction.
On the other hand, some commissioners contend that by reviewing the stewards' actions, they can check up and see just what kind of job their officials are doing. A public airing is healthy.
The most positive spin anyone could place on last week's startling action by the commission is that the stewards officiate thousands of races each year, issue hundreds of rulings and very few of them end up being appealed.
Of the ones that are microscopically examined, seldom are the stewards' decisions overturned. When it happened three times in one afternoon last week, Levey was not alone in calling it "a convergence of circumstances."
But, try telling that to a bettor who has been the victim of a bad call. He doesn't want to hear about anomalies. He wants confidence his interests are being looked after, or he will take his money elsewhere.
Saudi Brass is put down
Saudi Brass, whose last winning race was a front-running upset of multiple stakes winner Miss Slewpy in January, was humanely destroyed last Tuesday after fracturing her right front ankle at the Bowie Training Center.
"I had just sent her out for a routine gallop and she took a bad step," said her trainer, Linda Albert, who had cared for the 6-year-old mare since she was a 2-year-old. "Something like this happens and it's just really hard to take."
The daughter of Marine Brass, who was owned by the Allen Murray family of Murmur Farm in Darlington, had won 12 of 33 starts and earned $186,441.
Among her major accomplishments were winning the Lorillard Stakes at Monmouth Park and the Forsythia Stakes at Philadelphia Park. This spring, Saudi Brass finished third in the Searching Stakes at Pimlico.
Derby 'hocus pocus'
Even though Churchill Downs has announced that it is raising the purse of the Kentucky Derby from $500,000-added to $1 million guaranteed, don't expect a similar move for the Preakness.
Pimlico/Laurel operator Joe De Francis described the Churchill Downs action as "hocus pocus."
"What they are actually doing is raising their starting and entry fees and not putting up a cent more toward the purse out of their own money," De Francis said.
"If you look at their purse this year, it already approached $1 million. If you raise the starting fee $5,000 and multiply it by 15 starters, you come up with an extra $75,000. Add that to this year's purse ($957,400) and you get the $1 million figure," De Francis said.
He added that the Preakness will stay at $500,000-added. The gross purse this year amounted to $687,400. The purse is smaller than the Derby because the field is smaller and starting and entry fees are less.
Beginning in 1996, Churchill Downs is raising the starting and entry fees from $10,000 to $15,000. Starting and entry fees for the Preakness are $5,000, "unless we decide to raise them, too," De Francis said.
Josh Pons of the Country Life Farm in Bel Air has been elected president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association. . . . Industry officials praised former Maryland racing commissioner Ordell Braase for his work on backstretch and alcohol and drug abuse committees, when he stepped down from the board last week. Braase had served for 11 years. . . . Ellen Moyer, a horse breeder and eight-year member of the Annapolis City Council, is taking Braase's place on the commission. Moyer owns a broodmare and a foal that are boarded in Kentucky, where her son, Steven Moyer, is a trainer. . . . Talk about a bunch of party animals. About 600 fans, horsemen and track employees turned out Friday evening for Laurel's first "Happy Hour" on the second floor of the clubhouse. But expect an even livelier crowd tonight when the steeplechase set convenes at a joint birthday party for one of its most dazzling trios -- Jack Fisher, Larry Smith and Bernie Houghton. . . . Edgar Prado made an appearance in his body cast last week at the Maryland Racing Commission meeting. He could shed the cast in a couple of weeks. Prado fractured several vertebrae in a spill at Pimlico. . . . The Virginia Racing Commission will hold fact-finding hearings on Tuesday concerning two potential OTB sites in Hampton and Chesapeake. The board is expected to grant licenses to the parlors, which will be operated by Arnold Stansley, in the next few weeks. An October opening is possible.