Saratoga saw a bizarre sequence of events in the 7th on Sunday. The race led to mass confusion, a photo finish, and an eventual no contest ruling.
The 7th at Saratoga
The 2 year olds entered the gate for the 7th at Saratoga. The race included 9 fillies (8 betting interests) for a maiden special weight contest at 1 mile and 1/16th in the inner turf course.
Given the 7/8ths of a mile distance of the inner turf course, a race of this length starts in the home stretch. The horses pass the finish line twice during the run of the race.
A Clean Beginning
The race started off well for such inexperienced runners. The horses broke away clean and settled into position rounding the first turn. As they rounded the turn and into the back stretch every thing was going to plan.
A Strange Sight
Halfway up the backstretch something went wrong. Jockeys could be seen checking around them.
At 3:33:34 an outrider on a gray horse can be seen off of his usual post near the hedge and out in the middle of the course with his hand raised. This was a clear indication that something was wrong and the impetus for the jockey’s odd behavior.
In the ensuing seconds jockeys can be seen toss their head to the home stretch, checking horses around them, and in some cases pulling up completely.
A Tight Finish
The race continued with those participants who had never pulled up. The result was a thrilling photo finish between the #1A Towhead and the #5 Idea Generation (IRE). The Towhead was eventually posted as the winner.
Post Race Confusion
It was hall of fame jockey Gary Stevens who first addressed that something weird had happened during the race. The inquiry sign was posted and speculation began. It was clear that something had gone wrong at some point, but with no visible debris on the track and no loose horses it was really hard to identify what triggered the mid race chaos.
A Tractor Malfunction
Within a few minutes paddock reporter Maggie Wolfendale was able to provide information that the tractor which takes the gate off of the course had malfunctioned and couldn’t move. At the 1 mile and 1/16th distance this means the starting gate is in the blocking the horses from getting to the finish line.
Eventually the crew was able to attach a second tractor to clear the gate before any potentially disastrous situations for horses and riders. While this was a great benefit to the safety of all involved it left many confused because the apparent reason for concern was a non-factor.
In the interest of human and equine safety there are several people connected by walkie talkies around the race track. In this instance as the horses left the gate, the tractor wouldn’t move. One of the stewards at the starting gate relayed the message to the outriders of a possible threat to runner safety.
Acting with the information provided the outrider made the decision to stop the race. To notify jockeys he moved into the course and raised his hand while shouting. This is what caused the riders to pull up.
Even though the gate was eventually moved in time, the race which lasted less than 2:00 minutes was already more than half way over. This was a case of better safe than sorry.
Why did some jockey stop while other proceeded to race? It is clear from the race replay that all of the jockeys were alerted to the situation. However, if you are on the front end you cannot immediately stop as horses may still be running at speed in behind you. Much like slamming on the brakes in rush hour traffic this could have further safety implications.
Once the jockeys hit the turn, the location of the starting gate was in sight. Thanks to the second tractor, the gate was clearly off the course and fearing the result may end up counting, those still involved in the race rode it to the end.
Following any incident on the track a steward inquiry will look into the situation. Although the ordeal was drawn out by an excessively long inquiry, the final determination was that not all runners were given a fair run of the race. This was the obvious conclusion as several of the horses pulled up prior to entering the lane.
The New York Racing Association declared the 7th race at Saratoga a no contest. Such a ruling means that for all intensive purposes the race never occurred.
Bettors were understandably upset. Players with seemingly winning tickets were not paid out. Since the race was declared no contest most wagers were refunded. It is important to note that different jurisdictions have differing rules about what happens in the event of a late scratch, surface change, or cancellation.
In the case of the NYRA rules Saratoga made the following adjustments to interrace wagers:
- Horizontal (multi-race) wagers beginning in the 7th: Refund
- Daily Double Race 6 into Race 7: Consolation payouts to all runners in the 7th race
- Pick 3, Pick 5, Pick 6, and Grand Slam Wagers already in progress: Players were given a free square in that leg.
While many of the above would seemingly help bettors by providing more people with winning tickets, the parimutuel nature of horse racing meant that payouts were significantly depressed due to the large number of people that need to split the winning pools.
Bad Optics, Right Outcome
The optics of this race are bad. Horses were in the middle of a race and told to stop. Some did, some didn’t, and the race was run to completion. However, at the end of the day the right call was made.
Horse and Rider Safety
The outrider was looking out for the best interest of the jockeys and horses. Failure to do so could have been catastrophic had the horses been allowed to get into their stretch runs with equipment still on the course.
This effect would have been exacerbated by the course of the race. On turf horses tend to save their biggest run for the end, bunching up into the final turn and looking to kick home late. This means many of the horses would have been hitting a high gear just ahead of running into the gate.
Pat McKenna, Vice President of Communications for NYRA agrees.
“Ensuring a safe racing environment for jockeys and horses is paramount. Our outriders are highly skilled and experienced professionals who made a swift decision based on concern for the safety of the jockeys and horses.”
Players upset by the declaration of a no contest fail to focus on integrity. Those who ended up getting money back or the all button in a race benefited from the decision. The only people that lost money on the race were those that had the coupled entry winning.
However, as can be seen in the replay there is no way to determine what would have happened had the race been run in a fair manner. We can say that the 1A was on the lead and that she fought back game to win the photo, but that doesn’t tell the story of the race.
Each race is a combination of thousands of factors with jockeys making split second decisions. When an external element, in this case the outrider, does anything to alter the run of the race, they potentially impact the outcome. In the end the only fair thing to do was declare a no contest.
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