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Thursday Thoughts: Optics will change when Judges do their Job

by Al Cimaglia

March 15, 2018

There have been some positives in 2018 for harness racing. Cal Expo and Pompano Park have set records in horizontal bets. The Pick 4 at Cal Expo on Saturday night now has a $50,000 guaranteed pool and surpasses it. Pompano Park has taken over Sunday's and Tuesday's as the place to play the Pick 4 and Pick 5. Unfortunately, despite some great news there are some stubborn warts that need attention.

Woodbine/Mohawk is the top harness racing program in North America. The Meadowlands still attracts fine horses in the summer and has top stakes, but over the entire year the best harness racing is north of the border. For some time now, it has been apparent to me the judges on the WEG circuit are reluctant to flash the inquiry sign.

This became painfully evident on December 23rd when a 16-1 shot winner interfered with at least two if not three others in the stretch to rally and keyed a $49,437 Hi-5 payout on a 0.20 wager.  Take a look

What was most disturbing is the judges at Woodbine were asleep at the switch in a race with over $1,000,000 in the Jackpot Hi-5 pool up for grabs. If there ever was a time for increased focus by those upholding the integrity of racing it was then, on a night when all eyes were on the mandatory Jackpot Hi-5 payout. It still shakes me how this result stood. Since then the diligence of the judges at Woodbine does not appear to be any better.

So, when it was reported there have been recent meetings at Woodbine and at others tracks in Canada whereby the judges laid down the law, I could only shake my head. Meetings like this happen from time to time but what goes unnoticed is responsibility is improperly placed. It's the job of a judge to ensure the integrity of each race is above question and a standard is set for the betting public.

It is not the driver's responsibility to self-police, but that seems to be a common thread lately in harness racing when more awareness comes about. It was that way with the misguided first attempt at the WEG/Gural-Standardbred Racing Integrity and Accountability Initiative, which was wisely reeled back. Self-policing doesn't work in society. It shouldn't be expected that owners, drivers and trainers will keep each other in-line.

What needs to take place is for the judges who are getting paid to do a job, to simply to do their job in every race. It's okay to remind driver's to not excessively whip, to not kick, to close holes, to not open-up the rail to allow someone to pass, to not pull only to block the outer flow, and to not talk on the track. But make no mistake the obligation to ensure those standards rests solely on the judges. For now, the first change needed is for the judges to realize the same. Those rules have been in place, they are not new, but they mean little unless they are enforced.

The initial focus shouldn't be on optics, but rather to ensure the betting public is getting a fair chance in every race. It may not look the best when drivers talk on the track. But does anyone really think they are discussing a script that's going to take place a few minutes later? Certainly not, but because popularity has diminished over the years there's probably not been enough criticism of judges and so they become lax. When that happens, drivers are human and will push the envelope and do pretty much what they can get away with, as the vast majority of time they are trying to win.

Race track management needs to be respectful of the concerns of the handful of people in the grandstand. But everyone involved in putting on the show should remember there are many more watching from afar. The optics will improve, and the fan base will grow when those responsible for upholding the integrity of harness racing remember to do their jobs.

Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.