by Al Cimaglia
December 14, 2017
The disqualification of What The Hill in the Hambletonian is still not behind us. The connections of the apparent race winner are looking to overturn their disqualification and the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (OAL) has scheduled to hear the case starting on January 23rd. Besides losing the winner's share of a $1,000,000 purse, What The Hill would probably win Horse of the Year honors if his Hambletonian finish stood-up. The owners have a gripe as besides the first place check the trotters value was also affected.
Maybe the judges did make a mistake, but without question the biggest harness race of the year was disappointing in many ways. Beyond a questionable decision, what was most problematic was the process followed by the Meadowlands judges. A judge saying, they don't bother talking to drivers about a race incident because they don't trust them to tell the truth is a big concern. That's exactly the wrong picture to paint when trying to project a fair and honest sport.
So many things in our society are based on trust. The entire world economy is based on trust. When the housing market crashed, besides a tremendous amount of wealth being lost, trust was destroyed. The process of buying and selling real estate was shown to be faulty. Once that happened people were fearful and looked to protect their assets rather than invest. It caused a terrible downward spiral in the stock market and other asset classes.
One of the reasons harness racing doesn't have nearly the following of thoroughbreds is because generally the public doesn't trust races are run fairly. By its very nature a harness race can look fishy to those who don't understand the sport. A driver leaning back in the race bike, or keeping the lines taut can look to an untrained eye as if he is trying to slow down the horse. In fact, the opposite is true but more work needs to be done to educate new fans.
Watching the scattered process during inquiries can result in diminished trust in the sport. That is probably the worst offshoot of the Hambletonian cluster. Why would anyone want to bet on a harness race if the judges really believe the drivers lie to them? That must matter to some betting the races, because it signals a flawed process of regulation.
Another problem is race tracks follow their own methods when there is an inquiry. Some judges will speak to drivers and some don't. This all can be resolved with everyone following the same rules. But on the biggest stage on Hambo Day, with a television audience tuning in a poor image of the sport was projected.
A driver's first obligation is to represent the interests of the owner. That doesn't mean they should lie, but it could mean they would be reluctant to volunteer information. That's where the responsibility of the judges needs to come into play, to display to the public there is honesty and integrity involved in harness racing. It's the judges who should question, analyze and discern before deciding. Because their decision has an impact on owners, breeders and the betting public as well as the drivers.
Frank Antonacci trainer of International Moni, and trainer John Butenschoen who had three entries in the Hambo, both confirmed the same story. They spoke to judges at the Meadowlands who stated they don't talk to drivers during an inquiry. The underlying reason of not trusting the drivers is what still bothers me four months later. Possibly my feelings are in the minority but as a trader back in 2007 I saw first hand what happens when trust is destroyed.
Maybe by the end of January an official conclusion will be made concerning the the 2017 Hambletonian. But I do wonder how long it will take for the betting public to trust harness racing is operating with their best interest in mind.
Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.