It's Fun to Slam Stews, But it Could Be Worse

A recent article originally published in HRU. I thought it kind of apropos after the weekend races at Gulfstream, so I repost it here.

I’m about to submit an article in support of the judging system. You read that right. For the few of you not so perplexed who plan to keep on reading, I promise, it will at least make a bit of sense. 

In the second round of the playoffs an NFL game occurred between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. It was a dandy affair with the underdog Cowboys playing inspired football against a hobbling Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The NFL was dubbing the game “Ice Bowl II” which was a little disingenuous, but the game was not disappointing. After being behind most of the game, Green Bay had just taken a 26-21 lead, but Dallas was charging for a go ahead score, on the Packers 30 yard line. After three plays, a pivotal 4th and two play was not your average, every day fourth down. It caused quite a bit of controversy that will probably last a long time; possibly resulting in rule changes. 

The play was a fly pattern from quarterback Tony Romo to Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant. Mr. Bryant went up, caught and controlled the ball, took three steps and appeared to reach for the goal line. Was it a go ahead touchdown? No, it did not look like it, but Dallas was in business at the one – first and goal. Not long after, however, a challenge flag came out, and upon further review, the ball seemed to hit the ground at the very end of the play (it popped up, so it likely did, anyway).  The new NFL parsed-replay-catch rules read like Swahili when it comes to catches and non-catches, but in a nutshell: If a receiver catches the ball – even if he takes three steps – but fails to make some sort of “second move” and the ball comes free, it is no catch. If he makes a “second move”, it is a catch, and if the ball comes free later on it’s a fumble, or down by contact, depending on the situation. A second move is simply some sort of move that involves avoiding a defender, reaching the ball out to get a first down or score, anything really that would be considered a “football move.”

After a long replay review, the biggest play of the game – the biggest play of the entire season for either team – was reversed. No catch. 

After the game, league officials explained they didn’t think Dez Bryant made a football move by trying to score, thus it was no catch. Many in the league’s media, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and Fox’s Howie Long thought it was obvious he wanted to score by extending for the goal line, and the evidence of that is if the catch was made at the ten, he would’ve just gathered the ball in, like a regular in-field play, thus making it a legal catch. The referees, one way or another, had to judge whether someone’s intent met what was shown on the video, and they disagreed.  By definition and consistency, they don’t reverse plays on the field when the word “think” is involved, but this time they did. Green Bay was given the ball on downs, and ran out the clock.

Horse racing has a lot of experience with this already. Video evidence has been judged on a daily basis since video was invented. It’s old hat. And boy, oh boy, the NFL can learn something from this sport. 

Horse racing judges call fouls not by the letter of the law, but if they are sure the outcome of the race, or a placing warrants it. There are dozens of infractions a day when a horse might get shoved out a little bit, or someone shuts a hole a little late, or who drifts out sideways a little in the stretch. These don’t cause placing’s because things happen in a horse race with 1,000 pound animals pulling sulkies, or having a 120 man or woman on their backs, and most of them have no bearing on the placing’s. They’re only called when they are blatant and obvious. 

I guess the biggest example of that this season, was the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, televised on NBC.  At the beginning of that mile and a quarter race, eventual winner Bayern broke inwards at the start, bothering race favorite Shared Belief. Was that interference so bad and malicious that it changed the race finish? Was Shared Belief so bothered that he lost all chance to hit the board? After review, there was no change. The stewards said they could not tell for sure if it affected the outcome, and Shared Belief had the entire race to make a move to improve his position, which he never did. 

Probably half the people who watch that race agree, the other half don’t. But the stew’s never bowed to pressure. They kept to racing’s judging mantra: Unless we are sure, we have to let the athletes decide a five million dollar race.  Compare that to the NFL call this weekend. Half the people believe the receiver was making a football move, half don’t, but the officials changed the result. They did not let the players on the field decide. 

In harness racing – as much as we get upset with judges - when a horse in the stretch is bothered, but the horse is losing ground and unable to keep pace with any closer or the leaders, there is no placing even though a rule was broken.  Meanwhile, if a horse is charging hard on the outside, decelerating slower than the lead horse and he or she suddenly stops because of interference, it’s an autopitch. In another case, if two horses are slugging it out and there is some movement, but the judges can’t tell for sure that the outcome is altered, judgements are left with the participants on the track, and the result stands. 

There are some people who do not like this form of judging, but to me, the alternatives are much worse. We as horse owners or bettors do not want judges to use a crystal ball, to try and surmise what might’ve happened. We don’t want them to say “well, the horse was bothered by the six at the eighth pole and might’ve lost three feet, so since he lost by two feet to the offender, we have to place him.” Tic tacs are mints, not something to decide horse races, and we don’t want inquiries lasting ten minutes every second race. In turn, we certainly don’t want a free for all on the track, where drivers can commit dangerous moves, endangering our equine and human athletes, where the judges let everything go, to decide things on the track.  This bar is set just about right.  

Sure horse racing has plenty of controversy when making rulings that are not so cut and dry. Remember the slow quarter incident at the Red Mile two years ago, for example. You will simply have that with tens of thousands of horse races, with horses and humans pacing or trotting around in a circle at more than 30 miles per hour. Things are going to happen.

The NFL is a marvelous league with a tremendous history. Its revenues are at an all-time high, it is proactive and has made good move after good move to grow the game. It usually makes horse racing look like it lives in the business dark ages. However, in this one instance – judging – they should’ve looked to this sport; the sport of horse racing. If they’re not sure about a play and have to think, they need to let the participants decide an outcome, not a fellow in a replay booth watching a video. That’s what racing does, and it’s the right way to go. 

Maybe we have to give the NFL a break. Racing has been dealing with these questions for a century, they’re only just learning. 

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