Friday, March 1, 2024

Flatter: What rules mean for handicapping event, Ness, Baffert

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Las Vegas

With all the
basketball tournaments in town this week, the Golden Knights had to go on the
road. I still have a hockey analogy, though, that I can work into horse racing.

Why is it when
a puck hits the post, it is not counted as a shot on goal? Because, as an old
NHL sage taught me years ago, the post is the beginning of wide. That brings me
to what is wide of the boundaries in racing.

The 24th National
Horseplayers Championship begins Friday, hopefully without the kind of drama
that pulsed beneath the 23rd renewal about 13 months ago. That was when former
NHC Tour winner Jonathon Kinchen tried to go wide and compete in the contest
from his vantage point at the Pegasus World Cup near Miami.

“All wagers
must be placed personally, and in person, by the contest player,” NHC rule 95
reads. There is no leeway. Kinchen said he did not know that. After he was
disqualified, he apologized, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association
laid down the law. Kinchen got a two-year suspension.

Florida, it might be said, was clearly wide of the goal post inside what
was Bally’s and is now Horseshoe Las Vegas. About 2,000 miles wide. It was
pretty cut and dry.

Not so with Jamie Ness. It was hard to figure out where the nets were in
his case. Were they the ones set up in Pennsylvania to keep trainers from
abusing toad venom? Or were they the ones designed to keep trainers from having
contaminated feed get to their horses? That was the gist of his disputed
medication violation last year.

Upon further review the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission
decided there was no clear evidence to give Ness anything but the benefit of
the doubt. A six-month suspension and $5,000 fine were thrown out. Wide, then,
was in the eye of the beholder.

Then there is the ongoing case of Bob Baffert, whose fight to clear his
name and restore the late Medina Spirit as the winner of the 2021 Kentucky
Derby has been layered in the complexities of medication rules as well as the
power plays of state regulators, the guardians of America’s most important
horse race and the man who has been the face of racing for a generation.

As nuanced as all those factors have been, there was a new goal post
that was set up by Churchill Downs Inc. when it threw 38 new words into the conditions
for both the Kentucky Derby and Oaks this year.

“Horses under
the care of any suspended trainer or affiliates may be transferred to a
non-suspended trainer and become eligible for earning points on a
forward-looking basis so long as the transfer is complete by Feb. 28, 2023.”

After a
federal court denied his request for a preliminary injunction to erase that
rule, Baffert and his client owners obeyed. They transferred eight horses to
Tim Yakteen much as they did last spring, when Taiba and Messier were sent to Baffert’s
former assistant to train them through the Triple Crown while Baffert served a
delayed, 90-day suspension.

It sure
looked like Baffert and the owners did what they were asked to do. Six of the
horses raced in Yakteen’s name in three Derby preps in the past two weeks.

The
California Horse Racing Board, though, said not so fast. It has a rule
prohibiting “program trainers,” the ones who are there in name only. And this is
where this definition wide comes into play.

The CHRB
stewards said it was not good enough for signage to go up in the Baffert barn
declaring that the stalls for those horses suddenly belonged to Yakteen, whose
barn is at the western end of Santa Anita’s stable area while Baffert’s is
easternmost. In effect, the horses were transferred but not moved. Whether the
distinction was without a difference was a gray area.

Look at CHRB
rule 1502, which starts to spell out what it a program trainer is by saying he,
she or they may be “identified as the trainer of record in the official program
but has not engaged in the actual training of the horse either personally or
through the assistant trainer. Actual training, as it is used in this
regulation, shall mean any responsibility required of a licensed trainer under
this division or any act traditionally performed by a licensed trainer
including but not limited to determining when a horse will walk, gallop, or
work out; determining the feed or supplements given to the horse; (and) consulting
with a licensed veterinarian when needed.”

Got all that?
Where in there does it say that a horse has to live x number of feet or yards
from his old trainer? Maybe that is the “not limited to.”

Baffert’s barn
is not exactly in a gated community. Carla Gaines has been a longtime neighbor.
Baffert and the owners theoretically could have moved those horses past a hay
bin and met the requirements of the CDI codicil to the Derby conditions as well
as the CHRB “program trainer” rule. Would that have been far enough for stewards
to be satisfied?

The changing
of barn assignments for trainers is not unusual. That very thing happened when
Graham Motion took some shippers out of the stalls next to Yakteen’s, thereby
giving the Bafteen horses some new space that apparently salved the stewards’
objections at Santa Anita.

Whether
Baffert moved the goal posts or the CHRB decided that the beginning of wide had
to be farther away is immaterial. This was all about cosmetics. It was an
illusion of authority that was not unlike referees asserting their power early when
they think a basketball game might get too physical.

The precedent
for the importance of signage already had been established last year. If it was
not good enough this month to hang a placard saying the existing stalls for the
eight Bafteens was Yakteen property, then why did the CHRB order Baffert to take
down all his signs and clear out his personal effects from barn 5 at Santa
Anita while he was told to stay away last spring?

In the case
of Baffert, whose side I am on, it feels like he went across the Ohio River
from Louisville to place a legal sports bet in Indiana, and then some Kentucky gendarme
yelled from the other side, “Get back. You’re too close to the shore.”

It probably
is too much to ask Churchill Downs to be specific with what it means to be “transferred
to a non-suspended trainer.” Perhaps that detail should be dumped in the lap of
Lisa Lazarus from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, whose magic
wand is supposed to make racing all better.

What should
be clear by now is that racing has a lot of gray area to negotiate. This goes
beyond the dream of having HISA or some other genie in a bottle creating that
utopia of consistent rules from state to state. If the NFL still cannot figure
out the definition of a catch, and if the NBA cannot figure out traveling, what
hope does our sport have in bringing subjectivity to its myriad abstracts?

All this
reminds me of a scene from an episode of “Frasier.” It was the one when Niles and
Frasier were feuding over something at the wine club. One rule led to another, and
then to a point of order, and then a motion, and then a second and all those in
favor saying aye.

Finally, a
frustrated club member off to the side muttered, “I remember when we used to
come here to drink.”

I remember
when we used to come here to Las Vegas to bet the horses. The beginning of
wide? That would be the two path.

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