Time to do away with interference disqualifications

by Brett Sturman

I once read a column about 20 years ago from long-time and Eclipse-award winning sports writer Dick Jerardi that I often think back to, especially in times of suspect disqualifications. Speaking specifically to thoroughbred racing, the premise of the column was that stewards shouldn’t be able to alter race results after the race is over and that the horse that crosses the wire first is the winner. The idea has a great deal of merit and with a couple of tweaks to it could and should be applied to harness racing.

Thoroughbred racing is more cut and dry in that interference is the only way a horse could be disqualified for in-race events. In harness racing, you have horses that could gain unfair advantages through racing inside pylons or racing while off-stride. Because of those instances, there’s still a need for stewards to address potential violations at that time based on rules that should be finite (i.e. going inside a specific number of pylons). But for everything else, stop changing race results based on highly subjective and debatable situations.

Hall of Fame driver David Miller is at the center of two high-profile examples to support the concept. The first comes from last weekend’s $450,000 Hambletonian Maturity for 4-year-old trotters, where Miller’s drive Custom Cantab was disqualified from 2nd and placed 7th. Having missed crossing the wire first by a nose, there would have been far more of an uproar if the DQ resulted in the winner being taken down rather than the second-place finisher. But still, the decision to disqualify the 4-year-old mare cost the connections of the horse $112,500 in purse and changed tens of thousands of dollars from winning tickets to losing ones for bettors. The decision itself to DQ the horse was truly terrible.

Into the stretch, Miller was sitting third on the rail with Custom Cantab. Halfway down the lane, Miller angles out an overloaded Custom Cantab and surges through the stretch to nearly dead-heat with Crystal Fashion for the win. After a lengthy inquiry, the stewards determined that when Miller angled out with Custom Cantab that he interfered with Phaetosive, who in turn caused interference to Six Pack and Fiftydallarbill. There was certainly some confusion with those trailing horses as the replays showed, but none of it should have been attributable to Miller.

It’s hard to watch (replay available here) and come away from it thinking that Miller didn’t have clearance. At the time he moved out with Custom Cantab, he was already a good one to two lengths ahead of 58-1 longshot Phaetosive whose race was already done anyway. The subsequent confusion stemmed from the way Phaetosive’s driver Brian Sears reacted to Custom Cantab, but neither Miller nor Custom Cantab should be blamed for it. Drivers angle for room with tons less room than what Miller had to work with and without any consequence, and if Sears didn’t react the way that he did, it’s highly doubtful that any further action would have been taken.

Maybe you’ve watched the race by now and see my point but feel it’s still up for debate as to if what Miller did constituted a disqualification or not. That’s completely fine, and it just goes to further demonstrate that whatever your opinion is, what we’re talking about is totally subjective and debatable. And in these speculative and subjective scenarios where a bunch of people could all see the same thing differently, how is it fair for results to be changed after the fact?

Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent memory that Miller has been at the center of one of these controversial disqualifications. In the $1 million Hambletonian two years ago, he crossed the wire first with what was the best horse on that day, but was disqualified and placed last when deemed to have caused interference when moving from the pocket. In that race, Miller and What The Hill were said to have interfered with and caused longshot Guardian Angel As to break stride, and that was another instance of alleged interference to a horse that was on its way backwards. Following that race, Miller was interviewed by HRU and let it be known that he didn’t agree with the steward’s decision. And if Miller didn’t agree with that decision, then he almost certainly wouldn’t have agreed with the one from last weekend where it seemed tons more innocent than the Hambletonian incident.

Following that Hambletonian, the connections of What The Hill appealed the race results to the New Jersey courts. They were unsuccessful as these appeals almost always are, but at least there was a route for recourse for the connections. Bettors don’t have that option. Even if a race result is overturned off in the future and purse money is reallocated, it doesn’t do anything for those who at one time had tickets on what would have turned out to be the winning horse.

The solution is to let race results stand in cases that are based purely on potential interference infractions. If judges determine that a driver drove inconsistently with what the rules call for, then they can fine or suspend that driver based on the violation. That seems like a much better solution than trying to quickly sort through highly subjective interpretations over a foul occurring or not.

In all other sports there has to be clear and incontrovertible evidence to overturn an initial ruling and in theory, racing should be no different. In these two disqualifications it’s impossible to say that the supposed infractions clear that burden and few times will they ever. Because of that, it’s time to do away with all interference disqualifications.