Donn's Articles » Stewards’ decisions

Stewards’ decisions

The arbiters of sport do not have it easy these days. It has always been the case that the referee has a good game when he remains inconspicuous, but the fitness levels of players are now at an all-time high, with the result that ballgames are played at such a pace that it is nigh on impossible for the man in the middle to have a perfect game.

There have been some high-profile errors of late – Lampard’s goal that wasn’t, Tevez’s goal that was, the Leinster Final try that was given as a goal, Benny Coulter’s square ball on Sunday – and we have the technology now to review each incident in graphically-enhanced super slow-mo, so that the referee’s every misdemeanour can be shown up at tea time in high definition for the felony that it really was.

Racing’s stewards are essentially its referees, but with two major differences. In stewards’ favour is the fact that they can deliberate over their decision. They can look at a race from every angle, from the side, from the front, from the back, sometimes from overhead. They can interview the players involved in an incident and they can debate the issue among themselves before they have to announce their decision. Referees obviously don’t have such luxuries. They usually have to make their decisions within, at most, a couple of seconds, penalty or not, square ball or not, before play has moved on and the opportunity is lost.

What makes the stewards’ job difficult, however, is the fact that their decision is based not on what happened, but on what would have happened if a certain incident hadn’t occurred. Now we are into conjecture, extrapolation and balance of probability, and that complicates matters. Would the ball have gone into the net if Suarez hadn’t handled it on the line? Easy. Would Down have beaten Kildare anyway on Sunday if Coulter’s 12th-minute goal had been disallowed? Not so easy.

The Galway stewards have been busier than most of late. On the Wednesday of the Festival last month, they had a close look at the finishes of the three-mile handicap hurdle and the one-mile handicap, as it affected the placed horses, Hoopy probably sailed close enough to the wind in edging across King Of Redfield on the run-in in the hurdle race, but he got home by a neck and the stewards decided to allow him keep it.

On the Thursday, however, they did disqualify Separate Ways for going across Luttrell Lady inside the final furlong of the one-mile handicap. It was a decision that surprised many. The stewards were effectively saying that Separate Ways interfered with Luttrell Lady, and that, on the balance of probability, the interference cost Luttrell Lady victory.

It seemed to run contrary to popular opinion. Not that popular opinion is nor should be the ultimate arbiter in these situations, but it is a fair indicator. Separate Ways did drift over towards the far rail under Colm O’Donoghue, and Joseph O’Brien did take a tug on Luttrell Lady and came around the leader to challenge on the outside, closing the gap to within a half a length at the line, but it was difficult to be dogmatic about the fact that the incident affected the result.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight. Separate Ways’s trainer David Marnane got the race back on appeal two weeks later, and the fact that his horse won another handicap on his next start off an 8lb higher mark – the day after he won the appeal – adds further credence to the notion that he was the best horse in the Galway race. All was well that ended well for connections in that instance, the trouble of preparing for and attending an appeal notwithstanding, but people who backed Separate Ways on the racecourse on the day lost their money, and that can’t be right.

If the Separate Ways decision caused raised eyebrows, however, then the Magical Memoir decision last Saturday caused cap-doffing and head-scratching. Magical Memoir passed the post first, but the stewards decided that the filly had interfered with runner-up Days Ahead to such an extent so as to affect the result, and awarded the race to the runner-up.

It was a brave decision to make. Magical Memoir did drift towards the far rail after jumping the final flight in front, Davy Russell was delivering Days Ahead with a dangerous looking challenge against said far rail, and it looked bad side-on for sure, Russell had to snatch up late on. However, from the head-on view it appears that there wasn’t enough room between the leader and the far rail for a horse to fit from fully 150 yards out. Did the gap close on Days Ahead, or was the gap and the opportunity gone already by the time he got to it? And even if he had got through it, would he have won?

The balance of probability can often hang on a knife-edge. The difficulty lies in what happens in common practice as opposed to what the rules state. In practice, in Ireland and the UK, the first horse past the post seems to be favoured. Stewards seem to be happy to allow the winner, the aggressor, keep the race unless it is obvious that the runner-up would almost certainly have won without the interference. The Galway stewards seem to have deviated from this apparently accepted norm, and it is that inconsistency that seems to have caused the head-scratching.

It is very different to what happens in France or in the Far East, where if you cause interference, regardless of how it may or may not have affected the result, you are thrown out. Black and white. If you step out of your lane in the 100-metre final, you are immediately disqualified, regardless of whether or not you were the fastest athlete in the race.

The French system isn’t ideal either, but it does have certainty and consistency, and that is just a starting point for any system of arbitration.

© The Racing Post, 31st August 2010