In a highly unusual decision that has triggered strong reactions, the California Horse Racing Board overruled a judgment call by three of its veteran stewards and gave the $300,000 Del Mar Derby back to Tight Spot, the original winner who was disqualified for alleged interference.
"Wow!" was the immediate reaction of Ron McAnally, Tight Spot's trainer, Wednesday when informed of the CHRB's vote to accept the recommendation of attorney Steven Schwartz, who served as the appeal hearing referee.
"In all my years of training, I can't recall a racing board overruling the stewards like this," said McAnally, who had urged the owners of Tight Spot to appeal the disqualification.
The vote among the seven commissioners was 6-0. CHRB Executive Secretary Dennis Hutcheson had not yet received the vote of Commissioner John LaFollette when he released the ruling Wednesday morning, but a simple majority was all that was required.
In horse racing, the board of stewards holds power comparable to that of referees and umpires in other sports. There have been ruling reversals before, but they have been few. None has occurred in a California race comparable to the Del Mar Derby.
Tight Spot, a 3-year-old colt owned by Verne Winchell, Frank Whitham, Frank Anderson and Rick Corradini, won the 1 1/8-mile grass race by three lengths over Jheri Redding's Itsallgreektome on Aug. 19 at Del Mar. However, stewards Hubert Jones, Morton Lipton and David Samuel held Tight Spot at fault for severe crowding that took place about 100 yards after the start. One horse hit the rail and another almost fell.
Tight Spot, who chipped a knee in the race, was placed last in the field of 10 after a seven-minute inquiry. The Derby was awarded to runner-up Itsallgreektome, ridden by Russell Baze and trained by Wallace Dollase, and Tight Spot's jockey, Laffit Pincay, was suspended for five days.
McAnally and Tight Spot's owners maintained that Pincay was merely following the same line as Pro for Sure, the colt immediately to his left, as Tight Spot led the Derby field down the turf chute toward the grandstand. Attorney Arthur Martin, acting for the Tight Spot group, presented testimony from six witnesses who either saw Pro for Sure as the actual culprit or simply could not untangle the incident.
Alex Solis, Pro for Sure's jockey, was the only witness presented by the stewards, who were represented by Lipton.
Dollase was present at the appeal and did not like what he heard. The decision means a difference in $125,000 between first and second place.
"I was not impressed," Dollase said. "The stewards did not present a good case, and they were supposedly representing the state. I maintained all along that both horses should have been disqualified, and now neither has been penalized."
Pro for Sure had been moved from fourth to third when Tight Spot was disqualified.
Dollase confirmed that he and owner Redding would seek legal advice to challenge the decision of the CHRB.
The comments of Schwartz would seem to support Dollase's contention that the stewards were lax in the defense of their decision. In his summary of the hearing, Schwartz called the testimony of Solis "conflicted" as to whether or not Tight Spot actually committed any crowding. Furthermore, Schwartz was swayed by the testimony of retired jockey Bill Harmatz, whose analysis of the race videotapes leveled the blame on Pro for Sure.
Samuel, who is serving in the stewards' stand at Fairplex Park, questioned the qualifications of Schwartz to analyze the evidence and to make such a sweeping recommendation to the racing commissioners.
"Any time they have somebody who doesn't know how to read films making decisions on people who have close to 100 years doing it, that's a bad system," Samuel said. "I think all the trainers, owners, jockeys and stewards in this state had better be concerned about it."
Samuel stood by his initial ruling that Tight Spot caused the crowding.
"I thought it was a fairly simple call at the time and I still do," he said.
Schwartz, reached at his Los Angeles law offices, replied that it was not his job to "make an independent determination as to who should or should not be disqualified."
Samuel, who like all stewards is a state employee, was asked if he considered the CHRB action a vote of no-confidence.
"No, not really," he replied. "But I'd sure like to know their thinking. This is the only sport I know where judgment calls are overturned."
In this case, the call by the stewards affected a betting pool of $1.8 million that included win, place, show, exacta, triple and late-double wagering. Tight Spot and Silver Ending, coupled as an entry, were 11-10 favorites, while Itsallgreektome was the 4-1 second choice. The original mutuel payoffs will stand.
Also at stake was a first-place purse of $165,000 and secondary awards of $60,000, $40,000, $22,500 and $7,500. The money was not paid out, pending the results of the appeal. The horses will now revert to their original finish order.
"We feel vindicated," said Winchell, who bred Tight Spot and owns 50% of the colt.