Commentary

Churchill stewards again in question

Updated: November 7, 2011, 3:49 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

A year after the Life At Ten fiasco, the Churchill Downs stewards, more so than anyone else, needed a good couple of days at the Breeders' Cup to redeem themselves and to restore the public's confidence in them. It didn't happen. The one time they were called upon to make a decision they got the call so wrong that their competence was again called into question.

Goldikova was penned down on the inside in the Breeders' Cup Mile and rider Olivier Peslier, desperate for room, made an abrupt move to the left and slammed into Courageous Cat, nearly dropping rider Pat Valenzuela. That kicked off a chain reaction in which a bunch of horses were involved.

The stewards did not post the inquiry sign, but that happens. There was a lot going on in the race and the field was a big one -- it's easy to understand how they could have missed it.

Valenzuela and Courageous Cat finished last of 13, so the rider had nothing to gain by claiming foul. One can only imagine that Valenzuela was so irate over Peslier's move that he decided to stick it to the French rider by claiming foul and having Goldikova come down after she finished third. He gave the same stewards who did not light the inquiry sign a chance to redeem themselves.

Other than the three Churchill stewards, after watching the replay, there may not have been a single person on the planet who wasn't certain that Goldikova deserved to come down.

Other than the three Churchill stewards, after watching the replay, there may not have been a single person on the planet who wasn't certain that Goldikova deserved to come down. This wasn't a borderline call but as obvious an infraction as you will ever see. Goldikova absolutely had to be disqualified and placed last.

Somehow, the stewards thought differently than the rest of the human race. Goldikova stayed up, with steward John Veitch telling reporters that Byword was equally at fault and it was a case of two horses going for the same hole at the same time. Are they joking? Byword had nothing to do with this. In fact, he was one of many that got clobbered by the chain reaction that Goldikova began.

Had Goldikova won this it would have been a huge story, but it's no less important to get it right when a horse finishes third. There was $2.2 million in the trifecta pool and $1.05 million in the superfecta pool. There are people out there who were holding trifecta tickets with Court Vision on top of Turallure over Gio Ponti, who finished fourth, and they were robbed. The same goes for superfecta players who played the 9-13-5-4, which should have been the winning combination.

Who knows what was going through the stewards' minds. There are some who are wondering if they didn't have the courage to take down Goldikova because of what she has meant to racing and the owners' sportsmanship in keeping her in training and bringing her back for a fourth straight year.

Was that it or are these stewards simply not very good at what they do? Who knows? Both possibilities are troubling.

But it really doesn't matter. For the second straight year, the betting public wagered more than $150 million on the Breeders' Cup races. All they ask in return is a fair shake. In 2010, the millions that were wagered on Life At Ten were flushed down the toilet when the stewards fell asleep, ignored the many warning signs and let a filly who had no business running go into the gate and make her way around the racetrack, albeit very slowly.

A year later, they whiffed on one of the most obvious disqualifications in racing history. This was worse than Life At Ten. Last year, there were conflicting opinions, some miscommunication and they had a jockey on their hands who didn't take the proper steps when he sensed there was something wrong with Life At Ten. They shouldn't have messed up the way they did, but in some respects it was understandable. Not this time. All they had to do was watch the replay of a very obvious disqualification and take Goldikova down. It was impossible to blow it, but they did.

The stewards are an important part of the process, there to protect the betting public. The player has to go home from the races feeling he or she got a fair shake. For the second straight year, it didn't happen.

From here on in, play Churchill Downs at your own risk.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com