Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Let the horses and drivers, not the judges, decide the Hambletonian

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

You’ve heard the expression in other sports; in basketball, in football, in hockey –“Let the players decide the game.”  It’s a saying that is often followed in professional sports.

Well, it wasn’t followed on Saturday, August 5, 2017 in the 2017 Hambletonian Final.  Watch the replay of the stretch drive.  Did David Miller and his horse, What The Hill, interfere with Jason Bartlett and his horse, Guardian Angel As, as Miller pulled the pocket to successfully trot by Perfect Spirit?

He did.  But was Bartlett’s horse going forward in the stretch? 


Did he have a chance to win or even keep up with horses after being parked the mile in the Hambletonian Final? 



Well, virtually all of the time, NHL referees “swallow their whistles” in overtime playoff games. Virtually all of the time, NBA referees “swallow their whistles” late in playoff games (and even many regular season games) when a player (even a star) goes to the basket and gets fouled.

Virtually all of the time, NFL officials “swallow their whistles” and won’t call that holding penalty late in a big game.

Why is that?  Well, it’s because there is a general feeling in sport that players, not officials, should decide the game.


There are.  If an NBA player gets hammered and had a clear path to a layup/dunk, some referees will call that, even in a big spot.  Or if an NHL player has a breakaway or even a step on a defender, that hook or trip might be called. 

In football, once in a while, that obvious hold in a big spot will be called (see, for example, Atlanta’s Jake Matthews’ egregious hold/takedown of the Patriots’ Chris Long in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, when it was clear that Long had a clear path to sacking QB Matt Ryan).


You bet there is.  Generally speaking, in harness racing and thoroughbred racing, especially in big races, judges are generally loathe to take down horses for interference.  Often, the nuanced test is, “was the horse who was interfered with going forward at the time of the interference?” or, “was he cut off from having a chance to win or pass horses by the interference.”

There was no such chance for Guardian Angel As.  He had been parked the mile at 55-1 in the Hambletonian Final.  While he raced gamely to be up near the lead, he was already flattening out when Dave Miller pulled the pocket with the eventual winner (until he was disqualified), What The Hill.


Indeed, thousands of times a year in harness racing, a driver who has put up a brave fight for much of a race with a game horse will ever so slightly move over (or just drift to the outside from being tired) to not get in the way of a horse who has a chance to win or, at least, go forward in the stretch.

But, in the Hambletonian Final, Jason Bartlett was caught between a rock and a hard place.  Andy Miller, driving Devious Man, and following Jason Bartlett and Guardian Angel As, pulled around Bartlett to try and pass him at the top of the stretch. 

But Andy Miller’s horse, Devious Man, came down on Bartlett’s horse (importantly, before David Miller’s horse, What The Hill, interfered with Bartlett’s horse).

The point being that Bartlett couldn’t either slightly move over or even drift out when it was clear he was not going to go forward in the stretch after being parked the mile. Indeed, it looked like Bartlett’s horse came down inside a little bit just before he was interfered with – because he had to get slightly away from Devious Man to his outside (watch carefully).

In thoroughbred racing, where this happens much more often, it’s called “being pinched” from both sides.    


Well, often-times, judges will make a nuanced determination that the horse interfered with was done or wasn’t going forward or, at that point in the race, had lost all chance to win or go by horses in the lane.  In that case, no disqualification is warranted.

In this writer’s opinion, that would have been the proper determination, given the circumstances of this race.


The problem with taking down the winner is that, if you’re going to go “by the book” (you know, interference is interference, no matter what the situation), well then, the judges should have at least discussed taking down Devious Man as well (imagine that debacle).

In addition, you have to consider the fact that this is the World Series of Harness Racing, the Super Bowl (double-meaning intended) for trotters, the seventh game of the NBA Finals. 

Now, if Guardian Angel As was going forward with a chance to win or go by horses, by all means take down a horse who interferes with him.  But that simply was not the case.   And, again, if you are going to take down the winner, you have to possibly take down Devious Man as well.


Well, it led to a long wait, a TV audience that really wasn’t aware of what was happening (yes, this writer DVR’d the race, went home and watched it again and again) and the first disqualification in the 92 editions of the Hambletonian.

It also led to an awkward winner’s circle presentation, where the owner was actually asked this question: “Is the feeling any less special because the horse finished second across the wire and was put up via DQ or is it still just as sweet?”

Yikes! To owner Lennart Agren’s credit, the first half of his answer was terrific: “We cannot do anything about that.” The second half, not so much: “so I thought the horse did two very good races and I think he deserved it.

Obviously, the second half of the answer is open for debate.  While Perfect Spirit and talented trainer/driver Ake Svanstedt did go two very good races, the reality is that, ON THE RACETRACK, he finished second.  Did he “deserve” to win the Hambletonian?

Not really.  While Perfect Spirit was not involved in the interference, What The Hill trotted right by him in the deep stretch (What The Hill had a perfect pocket trip while Perfect Spirit in the Final cut the mile after leaving from the 10 hole, tucking fourth and being first over in his elimination).


Many people will say, interference is interference – the facts surrounding it are irrelevant.  But this writer says that the age-old axiom, “Let the players decide the game on the field,” or, in this case, “Let the horses and drivers decide the race on the track,” should be followed in all but the most egregious cases.

The 2017 Hambletonian Final was NOT one of those egregious cases.

Steve Kallas is a former groom, assistant trainer, trainer and driver.  Every year on Hambletonian Day he joins Marc Malusis on WFAN to discuss harness racing in general and the Hambletonian in particular.

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