A six-horse trial last Thursday night drew most of the weekend attention at Los Alamitos and resulted in some irate patrons and a five-day suspension for jockey John Creager.
It was the first of two trials for the AQHA Challenge Distance Championship.
As expected, 4-5 favorite Griswold took the lead early in the 870-yard race and led by two lengths rounding the turn for home.
In the final yards, however, Creager appeared to ease up on Griswold, who immediately slowed, allowing a fast-closing Better Than Never to win by a head.
Griswold, owned by Legacy Ranch of Chino, finished second, a neck ahead of Racin Deal.
"He (quit) on me," Creager said. "He was running a really good, strong race, and we come down (the stretch), and he just (quit)."
Said Pete Parella, co-owner of Legacy Ranch: "I think what happened was that Creager thought he was sitting on the best race this horse has run this year, and that he had plenty of horse left. I think the horse kind of cheated on him, and when he quit riding, the horse stopped faster than he thought he would, and it kind of surprised him.
"(Griswold) is so smart. He's been around for so long that when you quit riding him, he thinks it's over. He won't give you any more than he needs to."
Parella understands the problem jockeys often face in trial races. The object is to win, at the same time saving the horse for the final, when the big money is on the line. The AQHA trial was a particularly touchy situation, since eight of the 11 horses in the two races would qualify for the final. In the end, five of the six in the first trial qualified.
"I still think everybody in that race was trying to win," Parella said. "Had the horses in second place not been aggressive and trying to win, Griswold would have won. I can't blame John (Creager). Griswold is a cheating son of a gun, and he just fooled him."
After the race, as Creager and Griswold galloped back, they were met with a chorus of boos. Five races later, when Creager reappeared to ride his next mount, the boos continued.
"It was horrible for me to see that," Parella said. "When we lost the match race (Griswold vs. Valient Pete at Santa Anita in 1991), I thought that was the worst thing that's ever happened to me in racing. But listening to the crowd the other night was worse. It was a horrible, horrible feeing."
The following night, Creager went before the Los Alamitos stewards and was suspended for "failure to persevere with his mount to the finish line, a violation of California Horse Racing Board rule 1893 (best effort required)." With two exceptions, Creager will sit out this weekend's racing and the program Nov. 10.
"In my honest opinion, I think he deserved (suspension)," Parella said. "'If a jockey makes a mistake or uses poor judgment, you've got to pay for that decision.
"John was not trying to run second or third. John's a great rider, and I'm sure he feels worse than anybody. I know he didn't do it intentionally. It was just a judgment decision, and one I'm sure he wishes he hadn't made."
Said Creager: "The only place I think I messed up is that I trusted the old horse to keep going like he was, and he didn't. I didn't want the horse to get beat. When you're in front by that far, you're not supposed to get beat."
Creager, the third-leading quarter horse jockey of the meeting, will ride fastest-qualifier Ah Sigh in the $150,000 Ed Burke Memorial Futurity on Friday and Moo Vin First in the Golden State Derby on Saturday. They are designated races and, because of their importance, suspended jockeys are allowed to ride them.
Creager, however, might be off Griswold in the final of the AQHA Challenge Distance Championship on Nov. 11.
"If we don't make a change and the same thing happens, people are going to say, 'What's going on?' " Parella said. "All these questions come up, like maybe we bet on the other horse, or (Griswold) wasn't right. The integrity of the sport is too important.
"If we do make a change, I feel bad for John, because he won't have a chance to redeem himself. To be honest with you, I don't think he'd make the same mistake twice."
Live harness racing is guaranteed at Los Alamitos this winter.
Premier Group, the harness racing group responsible for running the Los Alamitos harness meeting last year, signed a lease with Los Alamitos last week for the winter season.
"The lease is signed and the dates were approved at the (California Horse Racing Board) meeting Friday in Arcadia," said Dick Feinberg, vice president and general manager of the Horsemen's Quarter Horse Racing Assn.
The harness meeting is expected to open on Dec. 30, and run three days a week, Thursday through Saturday, until March 25.
Los Alamitos Notes
Jockey Carlos Cristos was suspended for four days, beginning tonight, for failure to maintain a straight course on Joshuas Secret in the fourth race last Thursday. Joshuas Secret was disqualified from second and penalized to fourth. . . . Sound Dash won the $50,000 Anne Burnett Handicap Friday night, strengthening her bid for aged mare and world champion honors.