In Ontario harness racing as with every sport, there are people who are responsible for ensuring fair play and sound judgment. Most sports refer to these folks as referees however in horse racing, the dedicated individuals responsible for vital decision making are known as Judges.
The Judges work for the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC), which governs horse racing industry throughout the province, which includes all three breeds of race horses; Standardbreds, Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses.
Having the opportunity to speak with the Judges brought a lot of insight into the steps taken each and every race night to ensure the public and horsemen are all treated with respect, integrity and fairness. At Woodbine Racetrack, (Toronto, ON) there are 3 judges located in the grandstand for harness racing, as well as an official located in the paddock.
The Judges arrive at the tracks' back office two and half hours prior to post time and this is standard for all race tracks including Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses. The three Judges that were kind enough to take time out to go over their routine were Craig Walker (11 years with the ORC) who is the Senior Judge or Presiding judge on site, Tom Miller (19 years with the ORC) and David Stewart Jr. (6 years with the ORC).
All three judges have history as horsemen, from driving, training and owning or from past experience such as working in race offices. Their experience and insight is what enables them to know what to anticipate in every situation.
The Judges of the ORC rotate from track to track and the teams are constantly changing to keep things fresh. Also the judges switch from Standardbreds to Thoroughbreds to Quarter horses routinely so their knowledge of rules and regulations for each breed stays up to speed.
"Our first order of business is to go over the program, the changes, driver changes, scratches and any other pertinent information such as equipment changes" explains Craig. "We go through all of the horses' lines to ensure everything is okay in terms of eligibility."
Prior to the start of the first race, there are times where the Judges may call in a driver if there is an infraction to be discussed from a previous date. If a horseman is called in due to a horses' positive test result, the horseman is entitled to bring in legal representation to discuss the matter. The Judges base their decisions on as much information possible; this way everyone has their fair chance to explain their circumstance prior to any fines or suspension being issued.
"They have a right to appeal any decision made by the Judges." explains Craig. "Their right is to appeal that decision to the Ontario Racing Commission itself and in that case we would be witnesses for the administration."
Were you aware Judges are not allowed to have any ownership in a race horse? Nor can their spouse and if by chance a Judge knows someone who does own a race horse, that Judge must excuse themselves from taking any part in a race that horse is involved in. By the Judge excusing him or herself from being an active participant in such a race, this negates any potential bias and maintains that each and every race is ruled free of prejudice. The same judge must fill out a conflict of interest form in advance of the race to create transparency and openness. These forms are kept on file with the ORC.
An ORC Judge or their spouse cannot bet on any races in Ontario, regardless if it is at another race track. They cannot bet on any race simulcast into the province, it doesn't matter if that race is in another province, country or continent.
The job can be stressful at times, considering that decisions made can have an impact on purse winnings and countless people. Can you imagine having to make a decision involving a half million dollar race such as the Breeders Crown? What if the winning driver of the Breeders Crown made an infraction causing an inquiry and it was a decision you had to make to place the winning driver second or third based on that infraction? That's a quarter million dollar decision affecting the connections involved not to mention the betting public. That is why the Judges always stick to the rule book and do not allow emotions to cloud their judgment.
"You have nights where everything goes smoothly, there are no inquiries and some nights can be what you call stressful" says David.
Such nights do happen but the Judges do enjoy their jobs, like watching competitive races. "It doesn't have to be a Stake race, we had a race here last night where there were five or six horses right across the wire and we all made a comment 'what a good race' that was." Tom says.
"There were a couple last night" Dave adds. "It's a good finish and it is good for the crowd. We can hear people outside yelling, screaming and cheering their horse on. That's always a good thing."
Once the race commences, each Judge has a separate task up in the grandstand. One Judge is in communication with the starter and one Judge is focused on the mutuals ensuring the finishing order posted is correct on the tote board. The third Judge is communication with the paddock in the event the Judges need to speak with a driver.
In the Judges' room in the grandstand, there is a massive screen which has the feeds from five different camera angles. In the event of an inquiry or objection, the Judges can rewind and look at the race from these feeds to determine the outcome.
As the starting car pulls away from the field and the horses charge forward, the Judges are intensely watching the race, calling out a horse's number when they see a horse break stride. As the field comes down the stretch each Judge is also writing down the order of finish, confirming with one another to ensure they are all on the same page.
"We all write down the numbers as we think they crossed the finish line." Craig says. "If it's really tight, the only way we are going to verify is with the photo finish (screen). It's instantaneous and as they cross it's recorded and we see it here on screen."
There are two employees in a separate room who oversee the video feeds and the photo finish. The employee in charge of the video communicates via phone and the employee who mans the photo finish communicates via intercom.
"If there is a malfunction with the feeds, our decision is final." Craig says. This is according to the ORC rule book.
"After the race if there is no inquiry, the routine is always the same. We comeback and we are going to watch replays of the stretch numerous times." Craig continues, "We are making sure everyone is staying in a straight line or trying to stay in a straight line. Another thing we are looking for is the use of the whip, making sure everyone is complying with the rules of the whip. (The driver's) feet must be in the stirrups."
Once the finishing order is confirmed, the Judge in charge of mutuals informs an official in another room of the top four and that official then calls to have those numbers posted on the tote board. The same Judge in charge of mutuals calls the tote department to confirm the order of finish and the tote department then posts the payouts. (The same official who is in charge of calling in the numbers to be posted on the tote board is also in charge of calling to have the inquiry sign posted if the Judges determine an inquiry is needed).
"After the race is official, then we do the official run down of the order of finish." Craig says. In this case, the Judges are confirming the order one through ten. If a horse broke stride at any point, this is noted in the race line by one of the Judges and this is what you will see in the program the next time the same horse races. You will see where the Judges noted with an 'X' where the horse broke stride in the race.
If a horse broke stride in two consecutive races, the Judges will inform the connections for that horse that they will need to put that horse in a qualifying race to show the horse is able to race at full stride. Only then will that horse be able to race competitively again.
While all of this is going on, one of the Judges is calling down to have two horses tested. Usually it is the winner and one other horse, for example it could be a horse that either did way better than anticipated or didn't compete as well as expected. Especially if it is a 1-5 favorite who finished sluggishly, which means there was a lot of public backing and the officials want to maintain nothing out of the ordinary is going on.
"The rules don't say we have to test the winner" explains Tom. "I feel the patrons would want to know the integrity of that winner, we tested that winner and the integrity of that mile is there. We know the horse didn't have any drugs in its system."
The two biggest takeaways I have is that communication is vital for the Judges and following the routine is what ensures transparency. If a horse is required to be at the paddock by a certain time and it is a minute late, it's scratched. Sure the Judges can understand traffic can be an issue, but if one rule is not enforced at any point, the result will be a can of worms being opened. Everyone gets treated the same, no ifs ands or buts. It's tough, but sound.
"We do not take any pride or pleasure is scratching horses" states Tom. "The more the merrier but sometimes with situations of being a few minutes late, it's tough to do our job but we have to be consistent with everybody. The horsemen want to know we are always going to do it the same so they know what to expect. This way when the same situation happens they are aware of what the result will be."