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Belmont Stakes controversy an issue of transparency

Plenty of questions have surrounded the actions of Restoring Hope and Noble Indy in the 48 hours since Justify’s win in the 2018 Belmont Stakes.   Did Restoring Hope interfere with other horses and help Justify win? Was Noble Indy instructed by his owner to head to the front and pressure Justify, only to act in another way? And if Restoring Hope wasn't ridden to win, is racing -- fans, players and horsemen -- OK with that? Why Restoring Hope, Noble Indy were in the race Many handicappers believed Noble Indy was a horse that could have pushed Jusify through early fractions and threatened his bid at the Triple Crown sweep. But WinStar farm, the managing partner in Justify, also owns a share of Noble Indy. While WinStar seemingly wouldn't compromise itself, Nobly Indy ran in the silks of New Yorker Mike Repole, who has expressed that the Belmont Stakes is the race he'd most like to win. Repole not only wanted Noble Indy to run, but anticipated his presence would help the other horse in the Repole blue and orange, Vino Rosso, by helping set a fast early pace. As for Restoring Hope, Bob Baffert joked with reporters that, “I brought my own rabbit” to the Belmont. He didn't mean that in a traditional sense of Restoring Hope jetting to early fractions, but rather that the colt could give Justify a modestly fast target to sit off early. Reviewing Restoring Hope’s ride The track replay shows how Restoring Hope (pink silks, black cap) was ridden aggressively to get near the front of the race.  He was pushed through a hole between Bravazo (black silks) and Tenfold (maroon silks, white cap).


Note that when he makes the lead, Restoring pulls to the right. Looking at the head-on replay below, we see that Restoring Hope was pushed through an opening. Once he neared the front of the field, Restoring Hope veered to the right as his nine fellow contenders steered left.
In going past Noble Indy (blue silks, orange sleeves, blue cap), Restoring hope veered out to the right and forces Noble Indy to move to his right temporarily to avoid him. This slowed down Noble Indy’s ability to get near the lead and near Justify. Next, look at the clip below in which the horses make the bend into the first turn. Note that Bravazo (black silks) has a position in the clear in between Justify to his left and Restoring Hope to his right. But jockey Florent Geroux, aboard Restoring Hope, tugs the horse to the left. You can see Restoring Hope's head turned. It appears he is both attempting to angle to his left without moving forward at all and pressuring Justify. This is not a common move in horse racing. Normally, if the jockey (or horse) wants to go to the lead, he would let the horse naturally progress up to Justify and then float over to the left without pulling on the horse.


Noble Indy’s ride upset Repole Mike Repole told XBTV before the Belmont that Noble Indy would run near the front. "Noble Indy is going to be on the lead," Repole said. "It's going to be really up to Mike Smith and Justify to decide how much they want to push him." After the race, Repole was upset with Javier Castellano's ride, and as reported by the Daily Racing Form, said, “You get to run in this race one time in your life, you would expect to follow directions. He chose an audible. That doesn’t sit well with me. It’ll be awhile before you see Javier in the blue and orange silks.”

This begs the question of whether Noble Indy’s connections were on the same team. While Mike Repole wanted to win the Belmont for himself, WinStar had its own interest in the Triple Crown. WinStar farm is an incredibly important client for Trainer Todd Pletcher, who trains Noble Indy. And Pletcher is instrumental to the success of Castellano, one of his regular top riders. Castellano's start on Noble Indy Bryan Langlois uploaded a video to Youtube that he shot from the Clubhouse at Belmont Park. Below is a short clip of that video slowed down at 1/4 speed, showing a closer look at Castellano's ride on Noble Indy. In the first half of this clip, you can see that Noble Indy (#9) is accelerating faster than any horse in the race. But once he is about to move by Tenfold (#7), Castellano looks over to his left and grabs a hold of Noble Indy. So just as he is about to accelerate past the others and could gain a position alongside Justify, he takes hold and decides to be wide. Note that all of this happens before Restoring Hope comes through the pack and cuts over in front of Noble Indy. So whether Restoring Hope was blocking for Noble Indy was really secondary, as Noble Indy was already not going to the lead here.


Also, it should be noted that blinkers were taken off of Noble Indy before the Belmont. Normally, when blinkers are removed, a horse shows less speed. So were Pletcher and Repole on the same page as far as the tactics and goals for Noble Indy in the Belmont? Fans are accustomed to stablemates assisting victory The fact that Restoring Hope was entered in the race to go to the front and help Justify didn’t seem to faze the horse racing public. Although not common, in major stakes races, horses have been known to be entered as “rabbits” to challenge for the lead and ensure enough early pace to help a horse from the same stable or ownership.   What are the rules about horses trying to win? According to the New York gaming commision rules and regulations on horse racing, here are the rules for jockeys riding: “Instructions to jockeys. All horses are expected to give their best efforts in races in which they run, and any instructions or advice to jockeys to ride or handle their mounts otherwise than for the purpose of winning are forbidden and will subject all persons giving or following such instructions or advice to disciplinary action by the stewards and the commission.” Whether horses in the 2018 Belmont Stakes were ridden win according to the rules is a question for the state stewards, although New York Gaming Commission steward Steve Lewandowski didn't express interest in reviewing the subject.   According to the Daily Racing Form, Lewandowski said "nothing was brought to our attention" about the race, and there were no plans to speak with Geroux. WinStar made moves to orchestrate 2016 Belmont win In 2016, WinStar Farm was planning to run the late-running Creator, trained by Steve Asmussen, in the Belmont Stakes, but felt the mile-and-a-half race lacked the necessary pace up front. So they entered another horse they owned, Gettysburg, in the race to set it up for Creator. Interestingly, before the Belmont, Gettysburg had been trained by Todd Pletcher, but he was transferred to Steve Asmussen the week of the Belmont Stakes. The plan worked to perfection as Gettysburg went to the lead and challenged Destin, trained by Todd Pletcher, for nearly a mile-and-a-quarter. Gettysburg finished eighth, but Destin lost by a nose to Creator. “Elliott made a great move with Gettysburg,” Asmussen told the press after Creator's win. “We'd seen his previous races and looked at it on paper. Without Gettysburg, the race goes fifty and change for a half-mile. Fifty and change makes it a cluster. We felt that a little pace would stretch the race out to where you had a shot. It was a very smoothly run race. With Gettysburg being there, it gave us 48 and change.” Is the public entitled to the entire story? Much of what has racing fans buzzing after the Belmont Stakes goes back to transparency. It was reported that Restoring Hope was a rabbit, so fans expected to see Restoring Hope near Justify, but probably not compromising his chances. But if Restoring Hope was entered in the race to block for Justify, does the betting public deserve to know?   And if Noble Indy was not entered with the intention of going to the lead, does the betting public have a right to this information? Does racing have any policies about disclosure to the public? Other sports modernize rules Even though horse racing is the only form of legal sports gambling in most states, many other sports lead the way in both game data and disclosure about athletes. Contrast that to horse racing, where it's just assumed that only the trainer and owners have inside information on the horse, and the rest of the world is just left to using past history or the betting odds as a guide. NFL has injury reports While the NFL has not officially endorsed sports gambling, the league has a long-standing practice of issuing injury reports for the transparency of opposing teams, media and the public. The NFL’s 2017 Personnel (Injury) Report Policy states: “The Personnel (Injury) Report Policy has been a cornerstone of public confidence in the NFL for many decades. The credibility of the NFL, teams, owners and team personnel requires full compliance with and uniform enforcement of the policy. "The intent is to provide full and complete information on player availability. It is NFL policy that information for dissemination to the public on all injured players be reported in a satisfactory manner by clubs to the league office, the opposing team, local and national media, and broadcast partners each game week of the regular season and postseason (including for the two Super Bowl teams between the Championship Games and Super Bowl). "The information must be credible, accurate, timely, and specific within the guidelines of the policy, which is of paramount importance in maintaining the integrity of the game.” NASCAR: responsibility to finish in the best possible position Following a 2013 incident in a playoff race, new rules were instituted by NASCAR to clearly define that each competitor’s responsibility is to race to finish in the best possible position. Section 12, Rule 4, Article L in the current NASCAR rule book says: "NASCAR requires its competitors to race at 100 percent of their ability with the goal of achieving their best possible finishing position in an event. Any competitor who takes action with the intent to artificially alter the finishing positions of the event or encourages, persuades or induces others to artificially alter the finishing position of the event shall be subject to a penalty from NASCAR. Such penalties may include but are limited to disqualification and/or loss of finishing points and/or fines and/or loss of points and/or suspension and/or probation to any and all members of the teams, including any beneficiaries of the prohibited actions. 'Artificially altered' shall be defined as actions by any competitor that show or suggest that the competitor did not race at 100 percent of their ability for the purpose of changing finishing positions in the event at NASCAR's sole discretion." NBA tracks officiating Another example of measuring integrity is the NBA, which keeps dozens of statistics on referee performances and then publicizes this information for public consumption. NBA referee stats include home team win percentage, home team points differential, fouls called per game and foul percentage against home and away teams, among other measures. All of these stats are listed by referee.


Horse racing needs to modernize its transparency With sports gambling about to expand across the country, horse racing is going to face more competition than ever. And with millions of customers expected to get sports betting accounts, this represents an opportunity as well. But the integrity of sports gambling will only come under greater and greater scrutiny, and all sports and leagues will need to be prepared. Several major tracks, such as Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park have done an excellent job of providing the media and public with access to workouts, workout video and notes about major races. Still, more transparency is needed, especially when it comes to the intent of ownership groups and trainers that represent multiple horses in a race. Are any racing commission stewards using data to detect issues before they arise? For example, should the New York state stewards know what percentage of the time every jockey breaks slowly in a race? Should they know how often jockeys send or don't send to the lead? As for the 2018 Belmont Stakes, if Noble Indy was allowed to pressure Justify early, Rob Gronkowski might have been holding the Belmont trophy on Saturday. Now that would have been something.

 

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