Let’s Hear It For The Stewards

The He’s Remarkable case at the Perth gallops – where connections are mounting a challenge against a stewards’ decision – threatens to confuse and disrupt.

This action risks endangering the normal processes of racing by asking a third party – never mind what their experience is – to overturn a decision based on the stewards’ assessment and opinion of interference.

Appeals are certainly reasonable if they address the severity of a penalty or any alleged improper process. Neither is really relevant in this case. The stewards have simply said one runner deliberately interfered with another (and they outed the responsible jockey, who has not appealed)

This appeal verges on a nonsense. It is like a football team complaining about a free kick awarded against them, then appealing to the code’s authority and asking for the result of the game to be reversed. What a shambles!

The key point is that this has nothing to do with due process. Connections simply disagreed with the stewards’ opinion. Now who doesn’t, every so often? Many of disagree with referees and umpires, too. But the game must go on. There comes a time when you have to say you tried hard but lost.

This is not to say that stewards are perfect and don’t make mistakes. Far from it. But on matters like this they are paid to express an opinion based on their professional expertise. That is their whole function in life, and the public depend on them.

Of course, second opinions are now becoming regular options is most sports. Cricket has the video review, as does Rugby League, while AFL and soccer are thinking about it or have experimented. In the latter two cases, goals have been awarded (or not) when the decisions should have gone the other way. Video was not used but could well have been.

But how would the appeals tribunal look into the offence in Perth? They will be confined to various videos just as stewards were. Are they then entitled to come to a different conclusion to people who do this sort of thing every day? What extra skills can they bring to bear? If the appeal is upheld, where does that leave stewards? As mugs?

It is often canvassed in the media that some stewards are “tougher” than others. Yet such criticisms normally address the penalties rather than the incident itself. Perhaps there is a case that stewards should be even more stringent in their assessment of interference or similar matters. After all, it is a literally matter of life and death in the thoroughbred code, as Damien Oliver was at pains to point out after winning the and dedicating the win to his late brother.

Perth aside, a related major issue facing racing is the increasing urge to multi-skill stewards. Multi-code, that is. It’s already in place in Tasmania, it is mooted in Queensland, it was proposed in the 2009 reviews of greyhounds and the NSW Racing Minister has just announced that thoroughbred and harness stewards will merge into one .

In the latter case this may be two wrongs trying to make a right. The harness stewards were alleged to be crooked so the Minister decided to bring in the well respected gallops people to straighten them out. That’s all very well but the forgotten point is that some responsibility must be laid at the feet of the code’s management as well as the offending stewards themselves. Indeed, that was a problem specifically identified by the IAC when it outed the Chief Steward’s (Rodney Potter) crimes in NSW greyhounds several years ago.

It is unavoidable that the multi-code approach will result in thinning out the level of expertise, no matter how brilliant the individuals. Dodging from one code to another must surely result in greater difficulty in assessing form, for example. The mechanics can be learnt but how can you build your knowledge of the people involved as well as – in greyhounds – the 20,000 to 30,000 dogs regularly plying their trade as well as similar big numbers in one or two other codes?

Despite (in NSW) now having online access to the office computers, stewards still have to digest and assess the information they get. That’s a difficult task until you learn your trade, and sometimes even after you do. Time and again we have seen evidence that good or bad (but especially bad) performances are ignored. In one series of examples I have personally brought to stewards’ attention in three states the fact that stayers have been running around carrying injuries which degraded their performance. Yet no action was ever taken. Nor did they ever acknowledge the correspondence.

More generally, greyhound racing rules require trainers to advise the stewards of any matter which might affect their dog‘s fitness to compete. That seldom happens either.

For a classic illustration of that problem, see ’s runs in the 2007 Easter Egg series at Wentworth Park, where the dog weakened in the home straight in the preliminaries but improved markedly in the final. Only after he won did we find out, in his own words, about both sickness and injury which had concerned the trainer. Yet that admission was evidence of a breach of the rules. Nothing happened there either. At the gallops he would have been thumped unmercifully.

Just recently, I queried GRNSW when a steward’s report advised that a trainer had been called in to explain an “improved” performance. In fact, it was not an improvement at all if you compared the run with some of its earlier form. On the same program another dog did show remarkable improvement yet the run was not queried. Both events indicate stewards have difficulty in assessing form properly. (No response has been forthcoming from GRNSW).

The point is that you have to work hard at the job to properly. I spend 7 days a week analysing and assessing tracks and dog form yet still find it very difficult to get it right (otherwise I and others would be millionaires). How much harder would it be for partly-skilled stewards who have many other duties as well?

Despite all those shortcomings – which can be overcome – there is a strong case that stewards need to be more pro-active, not only on form variations and the like, but also on track features which warrant improvements. It’s all very well for their reports to list blow by blow accounts of which dog bumped another, which is generally very boring anyway. What they should also be talking about – as gallops stewards do – are the events which contribute to that interference, some of which are man-made. Lousy first turns would be a good one to start with. But how would a steward who spent his apprenticeship at the gallops or trots do that?

More power to the stewards, but only when they are more positive and more knowledgeable about form.

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