A world of racing fans waited for 22 agonizing minutes as the Kentucky Derby hung in the balance, the result suddenly up to three anonymous stewards who had to sort out complaints filed by two jockeys against the apparent winner, Maximum Security.
Meanwhile, Russell Derderian’s cellphone exploded.
“I had 10 people call me up and say, ‘Oh, I bet you’re glad that’s not you,’” he recalled with a grin. “And I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Derderian knew the agony the Kentucky officials faced before they disqualified Maximum Security and handed victory to Country House. He’s one of three stewards who make similar calls in Maryland.
If a controversy arises in the moments after the May 18 Preakness, Derderian, Ross Pearce and Adam Campola will be charged with settling it as the world watches.
Stewards, anonymous figures to the casual fans tuning in for Triple Crown races, find themselves in the spotlight because of the unprecedented Derby finish. NBA and NFL officials are used to scrutiny, but it’s rarer in thoroughbred racing.
Derderian, Pearce and Campola know there will be more eyes on them than usual when horses break from the starting gate for the 144th Preakness. They’re state employees who made between $78,000 and $92,000 last year, and they could end up deciding a race with a $1.5 million purse. But they’ve worked on this stage before, and they don’t shrink from it.
“It’s pretty cool,” Campola said. “The feeling is more cool than nervous.”
The Preakness has ended controversially before. In 1980, the owners of Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk protested Codex’s victory, claiming his jockey, Angel Cordero Jr., had deliberately interfered with an aggressive swing to the outside. The Maryland Racing Commission upheld Codex’s win after a contentious hearing.
The current stewards would be thrilled if every race concluded without a hint of controversy.
“But you have to trust your judgment,” Pearce said. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
Asked if the job ever induces ulcers, he pulled a bottle of Tums from his desk drawer.
Derderian, Pearce and Campola have presided together over Maryland races for the past four years, but their histories in the sport run much deeper.
Derderian, 70, and Pearce, 63, are former trainers. Campola, 56, is a former jockey.
All three had to pass eight-day accreditation programs, Derderian and Pearce at the University of Louisville and Campola at the University of Arizona, to become stewards. They have to remain abreast of everything from racing legislation to the latest medication regulations.
The three converse with a familiarity you might expect from colleagues who spend more than 150 days a year in close quarters, upholding their collective integrity in the face of a doubting world.
When it comes to the Derby controversy, they don’t all view it the same way.
Derderian, for example, said he would consider the context of the Derby — the huge field filled with horses and jockeys unused to such a crowded scenario — in deciding whether to alter the result.
“If you’re going to say a foul is foul, regardless of the circumstances, then you might as well put three bus drivers in the stewards’ stand,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that happen up there, and it’s our job to adjudicate them.”
Pearce disagreed about the context, saying, “I try to look at them all the same.”
“It’s the worst race of the year,” Campola said. “You have 20 horses in the field, and 10 of them don’t belong.”
They might fall into a similar debate working through an inquiry in Maryland, but if two think one way and the third thinks another, they live with the split.
“That’s why there are three of us instead of four,” Pearce said. “Sometimes, you just have to get to a decision.”
“We don’t argue,” Derderian said. “I’ve been in stands where someone wanted to argue, but we don’t yell and scream here.”
Out of professional courtesy, the Maryland stewards declined to say whether they would have disqualified Maximum Security. But they applauded their Kentucky counterparts for changing the result in the face of terrible scrutiny.
“I give them a lot of credit for not just saying, ‘It’s the Derby; we can’t do anything,’” Campola said. “It took a lot of guts, and that meant they felt they were right. How can you argue with that?”
But he and his colleagues disagreed with Kentucky’s decision to decline media questions after chief steward Barbara Borden delivered a brief statement.
“You need to be transparent,” said Mike Hopkins, executive director for the Maryland Racing Commission. “I think it would be appropriate to answer questions in that situation. They’re going to come from all over the place, and the best thing we can do is provide sufficient background.”
Two hours before post time for the first race at Pimlico on Thursday, the stewards bantered in their downstairs office as they plowed through routine administrative duties — a horse scratched from one race, another that needed to be listed as running on the drug Lasix in the daily program. They serve as a judicial panel for out-of-race violations and oversee all the track employees licensed by the state.
But their job comes into sharpest focus when decide whether to overturn a race. They know livelihoods rise and fall on their judgment.
“They’re always looking for a reason not to disqualify,” Hopkins said. “That’s the mentality.”
The stewards practice preventive medicine.
“We’re very hands on,” Campola said. “We go to the jockeys’ room three, four, five times a day. You’ll see something in a race and while it’s fresh in your mind, you go to talk to the rider. You just let them know you’re watching, even if it’s the guy who finished eighth instead of the guy who finished first or second.”
“We might tell them, ‘Hey, you guys are getting a little out of hand here. We’re going to crack down on you,’” Pearce added. “That usually works pretty well.”
As the top rider at Laurel Park, Trevor McCarthy has been on both sides of their decisions. “They’re pretty fair when it comes to calling the races and calling the shot on whether a horse should be disqualified or not,” he said. “They definitely come down to the jocks’ room throughout the day, and if there are inquiries, they’ll come down and talk through it with us after the fact. They do a really good job with our out apprentice riders … just showing them replays of the races and what things went wrong, what things went right.”
About 20 minutes before the first race at Pimlico on Thursday, the stewards walked up to the track roof, where they watch the action from a small red house. Two peer through binoculars while the third sits before a pair of flat-screen televisions, each divided into four different shots of various points along the track. Should they have to adjudicate a bump or a jockey’s complaint, they can watch the moment from almost every angle.
The stewards’ number at the track is listed publicly, and sometimes, an aggrieved patron will call to dispute their judgment. They try to take those calls, because they believe they’re entrusted with protecting the gamblers, the economic lifeblood of racing. One remote bettor called from California to gripe about a photo finish. Pearce printed out a blown-up photograph showing the result and mailed it to the guy. On other occasions, the stewards have invited dissatisfied bettors or owners to review footage with them.
“That’s a thankless job at times,” said longtime Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta, who will saddle Win Win Win in the Preakness. “You look at the stewards in Kentucky, and there was no way they could get out of that situation without grief. That’s the job. Our stewards are very qualified, and they’ve been doing it a long time. I’m sure they hope when they go up to watch that race, it’s clean and they won’t have to do anything. But they do a great job.”
Angry fans and owners accuse the stewards of bias — again, a charge faced by officials in every sport. But all three have wiped out victories for the owners of the very tracks where they worked.
“We don’t care who wins the race,” Campola said. “People think we do. But we understand that everybody in the race and everybody watching needs that win.”
“At the end of the day,” Pearce said, “at least one person is going to think you’re an idiot.”