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COMMENTARY : For Starters, This Rule Is in Need of Change

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Jack Haberstroh, who spends his summers in California, is an associate professor of advertising in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. </i>

The way I see it, two Southern California race tracks owe me a total of $18. I’ve waited more than 15 years for my $6 refund from Del Mar and nearly eight years for $12 from Santa Anita.

Both wagers were lost because of two rules covering the start of thoroughbred races in California.

Here’s the way I found out about them.

It’s Friday, Aug. 1, 1975, a postcard-perfect day at Del Mar, and the grandstand smells of fresh paint.

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It’s the eighth race, one mile on the turf. I buy a $6 combination ticket on Monter, the No. 5 horse, who has been dropping smoothly from his 14-1 on the morning line.

He is 5-1 as the pack moves into the starting gate, and I think I’ve made a nice “smart money” system bet.

All eight horses are in the gate. The flag is up. And they’re off!

They stampede together through the first furlong and thin out around the clubhouse turn. I look for my horse, but I can’t find him. Where is Monter? Where is No. 5? Should be eight horses out there. I count seven.

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I glance back at the starting gate. It should have been off the track by now. But there it is. With Monter on his back tangled in the stall, four feet flailing the air.

When the gates opened, Monter reared in his stall, threw his jockey and flipped himself onto his back. Assistant starters, working furiously, got him upright and into a waiting horse ambulance. A tractor moved the starting gate from the track and a heartbeat later the field flashed by the finish line.

Surely, I thought, they will refund my $6 on Monter. He certainly hadn’t raced. He hadn’t even left the starting gate.

More than 100 Monter bettors got to the chief steward’s office ahead of me. We were all told, politely but very firmly, that the race had been declared official and that Monter had been a starter. There would be no refund.

The California Administrative Code (a.k.a. the California Horse Racing Board rules and regulations) defines a starter as follows: “ ‘Starter’ means a horse when it is in the starting gate stall, and, when the field is dispatched by the starter, the stall gate in front of the horse is opened.”

Now, for openers, this rule changes the meaning of the very word start. What has been started? Every common sense--much less dictionary--meaning of start implies a movement of some kind. Webster claims it is “to move suddenly and violently. To issue with sudden force.” And “to begin a course or journey.”

The definition of a starter must be changed to include a movement out of the gate! If the horse throws his jockey, breaks a leg, stumbles, or dies--one step out of the chute--there isn’t a bettor I know who would complain.

But to call a horse a starter when he’s dead in the gate, or has been loaded backward or has thrown his jockey in the chute--and the gates open in front of him--is not fair to the betting crowd.

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No, those horses should be declared non-starters and money bet on them refunded. What has a dead horse started? Or one upside down? Or backward? Or one without a jockey? Or a pony, too injured and terrified to move out of its opened stall?

I learned about another pocket-picking start rule--as you might suspect, the hard way--on March 30, 1983.

It’s a gray, cool afternoon. The eighth race at Santa Anita is coming up, and the crowd has driven the entry of Hyperborean and Bronze Emperor down to 5-2. Hyperborean’s workouts have been sharp. The entry, particularly Hyperborean, looks good and I bet $4 across on it.

It’s post time, and No. 1 Hyperborean is loaded into the chute first, of course. But he immediately rears and flips over backward, injuring himself on the gate.

Fortunately, jockey Terry Lipham is not hurt. But veterinarians examine Hyperborean and declare the horse unfit for the race. And the track scratches him.

But by this time, the 11 other horses have been loaded into the starting gate. The flag goes up. And they’re off!

Bronze Emperor, the other half of the entry, finishes last. I might as well have flushed my $12 down the toilet. Again, no refund.

As I see it, when the track advertises in the program that two horses are coupled as an entry and one is subsequently scratched, bettors on the entry should be given the opportunity of changing their bets.

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The rankling rule is also in the Administrative Code: ". . . a refund is not given if one horse in an entry . . . is a non-starter while other members of the entry . . . remain starters.”

OK, but at least give me a chance to change my bet!

Imagine a retail business selling two items--let’s say lamps--for a single price. But one of the lamps falls off the delivery truck, and the retailer is able to deliver only one. But he insists on charging you for two!

Longtime track followers have seen selections stumble, fall, jump into the infield, bite each other, throw their jockeys, suffer heart attacks, break their legs, step on one another, even die on the track. It’s all part of thoroughbred racing. I understand and can accept it. And most of us go back to the Form for the next race. Quietly.

But the start rules need revision. Sure it’s the same in most states, but that doesn’t make it right. And I’m getting awfully tired of waiting for my $18.


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