Upon Further Review: Kentucky stewards’ rulings prompt questions about consistency, drug use

Updated: Oct. 29, 2019 at 5:31 PM EDT
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Maximum Security’s owners on Monday filed an appeal with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission...
Maximum Security’s owners on Monday filed an appeal with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission following Saturday’s unprecedented disqualification of their Kentucky Derby-winning horse. (Photo: Dan Dry/PriceWeber)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - They sit in a small room and make big decisions. As we saw after this year’s Kentucky Derby, if you want to question their rulings and punishments, you might encounter maximum steward security.

After the historic disqualification in the Kentucky Derby, WAVE 3 News took a closer look at the rulings issued by Kentucky’s horse racing stewards.

We opened, examined, and took notes on every one of the rulings made over the past three years, more than 100 annually.

The first thing that stands out: Maximum Security’s rider, Luis Saez, was given a 15-day suspension for a ride that is still being debated, nearly six months later, after his camp provided video evidence of what they believe shows their horse veering out of the way because it was being repeatedly contacted from behind.

While Saez got 15 days, 37 other jockeys over the past three years got three-day suspensions for their rides by the stewards. One got four days. One got six days. When we went back and reviewed the races where riders got far-lesser suspensions, many of them appeared to be worse than the Derby ride with horses veering wildly, taking out and sometimes dumping horses and riders.

WAVE 3 News requested an interview with Chief State Racing Steward Barbara Borden about the rulings they’ve made over the past three years. She never returned our call or email. Two days after the Public Protection Cabinet led us to believe there would be an interview, we were informed Borden would not be available.

"In any stewards’ decision someone’s not gonna like it one way or another,” former Kentucky Chief Racing Steward Bernie Hettel said. We shared our findings on the riding suspension disparities with Hettel, who was recently hired to be chief steward in Arkansas, to see if he can explain it.

“I think you’d have to ask the horse stewards at Churchill Downs,” Hettel said. He represents Saez in the jockey’s appeal of the 15-day Derby suspension, so he won’t talk about that case.

“All these I seem to be looking at are veer outs,” I said. “At what point do you cross the line to be punished?”

“The gold standard of it is how it affected the outcome of the race,” Hettel said. “That gets very judgmental. What’s your valued, educated opinion, as a steward, going to be on what that infraction caused the result of the race?”

The other item that stands out when analyzing the stewards’ rulings is the number of drug-test failures by horses who win. One hundred and thirty eight of the 333 stewards’ rulings we analyzed over the past three years (41 percent) were drug-related. WAVE 3 News found infractions as bad as a search of trainers Jerry and Amanda Dimmett’s barn at Turfway Park in January that found injectable medications, hypodermic syringes and needles netting them 90-day suspensions. Sixty six of those 138 rulings involving drug-test failures over the past three years, roughly half, were at Turfway Park.

“I think probably every state has a drug problem,” said legendary turf writer Billy Reed, who has covered horse racing for 60 years. “The industry, yes, I think it’s at a more precarious position going forward than it’s ever been. I think there are still trainers who are really trying to scuffle to make a living who will, yeah, they’ll take chances with drugs.”

“Some of those that you note in your stats are horses that have been treated properly but it’s remained in their system too long,” Hettel said. “Sometimes people go over the line, though. There’s that mentality to take the advantage, and that’s when stewards have got to get busy and put punitive damages on when somebody does that.”

Penalties assessed included disqualifications, fines up to $10,000, and suspensions up to one year. Often, purse money is redistributed. But one thing you will not find is redistribution of payouts to bettors who lost to horses that later got disqualified for drug-test failures long after they left the track.

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