Stewards got it right with griffins race - Indubitably
Who said griffin races are boring? They may not be popular with punters and they may not produce blanket finishes where up to half the field are still in with a chance in the last 200 metres, but Sunday's event at Sha Tin sure provided a talking point. The arguments started as soon as Classic Master crossed the line a neck to the good of Indubitably Bliss, they continued after the stewards had reversed the placings 10 minutes later, they went on after racing with an impromptu film show for the press in the stewards' room, and they will probably rage for some time to come.
The decision to award the race to Indubitably Bliss appeared the right one from a first head-on viewing of the race, and nothing has been seen or heard since to alter that opinion. But it was a close call - one which the stewards took 10 minutes to make - and even the apparent facts of the case are clouded in dispute. Just to recap, and only to state the bald facts, John Egan took up the running early in the straight on Classic Master, pursued by Felix Coetzee on Indubitably Bliss.
At that stage, there was perhaps three lengths between them, and Classic Master was about two horses out from the rail with Indubitably Bliss set to challenge on his outside. Indubitably Bliss closed the gap gradually rather than rapidly, but as he did Classic Master began to veer away from the rail and continued to do so even after Egan had switched his whip to his left hand. At the line, Classic Master was still a neck in front, but by now both he and Indubitably Bliss were in the centre of the track.
If a horse is carried virtually half the width of the track in the last 300 metres and only loses by a neck, it seems obvious that the stewards have no option but to reverse the placings. The criterion for their decision is whether the material extent of the interference exceeded the winning margin, and in this case there is no need for complicated mathematics to see that if Indubitably Bliss had been able to run in a straight line for the last 300 metres, which he was entitled to do, he would have covered far less ground.
One of the central planks for arguing that Classic Master should have kept the race is that the two horses never touched and that Indubitably Bliss was moving out of his own accord for the most part, with the only sharp deviation coming so close to the line that it was too late to affect the result. But physical contact should never be a prerequisite when judging the material extent of interference - otherwise most cases of careless riding would be thrown out. Indubitably Bliss undoubtedly did some shifting of his own, but most of the movement appeared to be in an attempt to avoid and get around Classic Master.
As chief stipendiary steward John Schreck pointed out during his post-racing review of the replays in front of the press: 'Why wouldn't Indubitably Bliss move out? The other horse is coming towards him and John Egan's whip is being waved in his face. Isn't it understandable that a horse would move out in such circumstances?'
The other main argument in favour of Classic Master keeping the race is that the best horse won on the day. This is always a compelling viewpoint in such incidents, and one which stewards' panels should be ruled by whenever possible. In general, racing will be better where official interference in results is kept to a minimum.
But it seems impossible to make an overwhelming case for Classic Master. Coetzee may not have had to stop riding on Indubitably Bliss, but the crucial factor in this instance was the deviation he had to take as he made his challenge. Although Indubitably Bliss made ground only gradually, he still closed the gap sufficiently in the last 300 metres to suggest that he would have more than made up the neck he was beaten by if he had been allowed a straight run to the line. To argue that Classic Master would have pulled out more in that scenario is just supposition.
The evidence is much more firmly in favour of Indubitably Bliss and, above all, right is on his side. He did nothing wrong in those final 300 metres, though he probably was shifting a little of his own accord. But his owners, and those who backed him, must expect the stewards to protect their interests. The connections and backers of Classic Master may feel aggrieved in this case, but at least there is a clear enough reason for their loss. From the Indubitably Bliss side, there would be no such clear reason for denying him first place.
As Schreck pointed out, in racing it is not incumbent upon the innocent party to prove the guilt of the other side. Rather, once it has been decided an offence has been committed, the burden of proof lies with the offending party to show why they should not be penalised. If the winning distance had been more decisive, things would have been different, but with such a narrow margin it seemed right to give Indubitably Bliss the benefit of any doubt.
Nor should the inexperience of the horses influence the decision, though it was clearly a factor in this case with both protagonists having only the second outing of their careers and both running green in the closing stages. But where that factor should play a part is in deciding whether any blame should be attached to the jockey of the demoted horse, and in this case it was right that Egan should not be punished.
OK, he continued riding rather than putting down his whip to straighten Classic Master, which earned him a reprimand, but that was only an indication of the Irishman's will to win. It was not careless, or reckless, or dangerous - just determined.