AGCO considerations to interference rules is a step in right direction

by Brett Sturman

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) is soliciting feedback from all industry participants – owners to drivers to bettors and so forth – as the commission contemplates changes to how current interference rules are adjudicated.

At the heart of the discussion are the two different categories that serve as the basis in determining if a horse should be disqualified for interference. In Ontario and in North American harness racing, interference rules are governed by what’s known as Category 2. In Category 2, horses can be found guilty of interference and placed behind the suffered horse(s) “irrespective of whether the sufferer would have finished in front of the interferer had the incident(s) not occurred.” If AGCO were to adopt Category 1 to govern interference rules, interference may still be allowed without disqualification if irrespective of the incident, “the sufferer would not have finished ahead of the horse causing the interference.”

First things first, the move from the looser Category 2 criteria to the more stringent Category 1 rules would be a welcomed change and I think most people would overwhelmingly agree with that. As someone who hates interference disqualifications to begin with and was largely ridiculed about a column earlier this year over alternatives to interference disqualifications, making it more difficult to disqualify a horse under Category 1 rules is a good thing.

The harness racing example cited in the survey to illustrate the category difference was the 2017 Hambletonian. Following current Category 2 rules, first-past-the-post winner What The Hill was disqualified for (in my opinion, debatable) interference with Guardian Angel As who was never going to win the race anyway. If that exact race were re-run today under Category 1 rules, What The Hill would not have been disqualified and would have been declared the race winner. In this sense, the rule would work in that it was ensured that the more deserving horse wasn’t placed behind a lesser deserving horse.

Here is where it becomes a slippery slope, though. Say what you want in the 2017 Hambletonian about where Guardian Angel As would have finished if not for breaking stride in the stretch, it would have been impossible for him to ever finish ahead of What The Hill. But not every instance of determining a Category 2 versus Category 1 is as cut and dry as this example.
 The AGCO survey cites this year’s Kentucky Derby as another instance where first-finisher Maximum Security likely would have been allowed to stay the winner under Category 1 rules. It states that absent interference (which the interference is not disputed) that it’s not likely another horse would have won. But, can that be said for sure? There’s no need to litigate a thoroughbred race in a harness racing publication, but there was another horse in that race who had his momentum shut off and it’s not impossible that another horse may have won absent of the interference.

Luckily, here’s an even better and recent harness racing example to illustrate the conundrum. In this year’s Breeders Crown for 2-year-old pacers at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Tall Dark Stranger finished second but was then placed ahead of initial race winner Papi Rob Hanover. Under current Category 2 rules, Papi Rob Hanvoer was disqualified as most of us know, but the real question is, would the result have been any different if applied under Category 1? In a stirring stretch duel, Papi Rob Hanover looked as if he was getting the better of Tall Dark Stranger and in that process as he was inching ahead, he drifted in slightly causing Tall Dark Stranger to lose momentum. Even though Category 1 rules are designed to limit the number of interference disqualifications, would that have changed the outcome of the Breeders Crown? It’s ultimately impossible to say. Absent of the interference, it’s still entirely plausible that Papi Rob Hanover still would have won anyway. In that case, regardless of which category of rules is being adhered to, judges are still left to interpret a highly subjective situation.

In adjudicating interference rules regardless of whether it be Category 1 or Category 2 or some other criteria, one thing that’s certain is that judges should be in unanimous agreement for a horse to be disqualified. The purpose of Category 1 is in part, to make it more difficult for interference disqualifications to occur. Along that very sentiment, judges should have to be in unison to re-place the race winner. In many jurisdictions today, a disqualification can occur as long as there is a simple majority opinion from the race judges. In any situation, how can a horse be disqualified if it isn’t so clear-cut to the point that at least one of the judges doesn’t agree with the decision?

The remaining problem also is that, like all of us, judges are imperfect. What even necessitates an inquiry into a race to begin with remains subjective. Earlier this year, I cited a race at the Meadowlands where race winner Custom Cantab was disqualified in the Hambletonian Maturity from interference that I felt at worst was non-existent and at best was ticky-tack. But then just last month on Nov. 2 there was another race at the Meadowlands where almost the same alleged infraction occurred. This was a standard overnight race so it didn’t get as much attention, but in the race, the eventual winner Happy Trio seemed to noticeably interfere with Born Of Fire at the top of the stretch when angling for room and yet in that race there wasn’t even an inquiry.

The point isn’t to belabor every individual judge’s decision, but rather to illustrate the need to reduce the amount of subjectivity. Category 1 rules will absolutely go a long way seeing that deserving winners are kept there, but consistency is still needed in how those rules are evaluated.

Just as consistency is needed across jurisdictions if Category 1 rules become the new standard, both consistency and common sense need to be applied the same to each race. Those factors notwithstanding, the move to Category 1 rules would clearly be a positive change for the industry.