Taking decisions out of judges’ hands is the smart thing to do

by Dean Towers

Many of us have been following along with John Campbell’s quest for uniform racing rules across the entire U.S. and Canada.

Recently my ears perked up when I heard John and his assembled team — made up of drivers, horsepeople, regulators and insiders — speak about how one of their goals is to make on-track rules and assorted rulings less subjective. They believe that the harness racing system of judging, and rule enforcement, works best when there are black and white rules that judges can lean on.

I think they’re on the right track.

NFL referees, despite what you may read in papers, on Twitter, or hear on talk radio, are all pretty amazing at their craft. For example, the league’s Mike Carey has a degree in molecular biology and is an inventor of several products. Others have similar analytical backgrounds. When reviewed at the end of the season, the crews might have gotten some wrong, but they get a whole lot more right.

But, they are also human.

From 1985 to 1999 you probably know that NFL home teams won about 59 per cent of their games. This is the “home field advantage” we hear so much about. What you may not know is that from 1999 to 2008, this number dropped by about 30 per cent to 56 per cent.

Why did this happen? A Yale University professor in his book Scorecasting put forth a reason why.

It turns out that instant replay was introduced in 1999 and it helped correct inherently biased calls towards the home team. For example, lost fumbles – which should be completely random – were somehow awarded to the home team at a 10 per cent higher rate. When replay entered the lexicon, this edge completely disappeared. For whatever reason – wanting to please the home fans, not wanting to get yelled and screamed at – referees were getting this very important call wrong and replay fixed it.

This is seen in other sports as well.

In NHL hockey, subjective fouls like hooking or roughing are called fewer times in the third period at crunch time, but when they are called, the home team has an edge. At the same time, penalties that are taken out of the referees hands – puck over the glass, too many men, fighting – show no home team bias. The author of Scorecasting contends that these subjective differences amount to a 0.25 goals per game home team edge.

NHL referees, like their brethren in the NFL are very good at what they do, too. They don’t consciously want to make a decision with a bias, but it turns out that’s not the case.

Are harness racing judges any different? Perhaps they are, but in certain instances what John and his team are doing helps take any potential bias out of play.

For example, John’s team is looking at the breaking rules, with a European twist.

Currently in North America when a horse breaks and hits the board it can be a head scratcher. At times it can take what seems like an hour to decipher, and we’ve all noticed it called differently at different racetracks. In Europe, however, this is not the case. There, if a horse breaks and is offstride for a set number of gallops, it is simply disqualified.

Think about how black and white that is, and how easy it’s applied when compared to its adjudication in the U.S. and Canada. Bettors can count, and so can judges. There’s little grey area and it’s good for the game.

When we look at many other rules, they too can likely be hammered down to the point where subjectivity is at a minimum. Ideally, the judges simply would look at the rule, apply the rule, and bettors would follow right along with them. If John and his team succeeds, for at least a half dozen types of objections the days of winding and rewinding harness racing’s Zapruder film could be minimized.

I personally think our sport’s judges do a pretty good job, and I bet you do, too. However, they aren’t perfect, and a case could be made they, like other referees, have inherent bias. Taking at least some of these decisions out of their hands is the right way to go. I commend John and his team for trying to make this a reality. It’s good for the sport of harness racing.