Commonwealth Court overturns decision to strike winning horse from race

By Sandra Lane | Apr 27, 2018

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania appellate court has reversed a decision by the State Horse Racing Commission to disqualify the winning horse in a race held at Philadelphia PARX in 2016, according to a decision filed on April 9 in the Commonwealth Court.

The appeal was heard by judges Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Michael H. Wojcik and P. Kevin Brobson, who penned the decision.

The controversy centered around the eligibility of the winning horse, Cousin Stephen, to participate in the race. Martin Shaw, the owner of the second-placed horse, Richie’s Rich, had disputed the results of the race, claiming that Cousin Stephen should have been disqualified because of the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the horse, according to the appellate court’s decision.

Racing GAMbit LLC had acquired Cousin Stephen at a “claiming race” at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in August 2016, according to the decision. A claiming race is a race in which all participating horses are put up for sale at a predetermined price. A prospective owner may then “claim” a horse prior to the race, and ownership may be transferred to the new owner before the race begins.

However, rules established by the New York Gaming Commission bar horses acquired in New York from racing outside of the state for 30 days from the date of acquisition or the end of the competition, or meeting, during which the animal was claimed.  The meeting in Saratoga Springs ended on Sept. 4, 2016, which means that Cousin Stephen could not race in Pennsylvania until Oct. 4, 2016—nine days after the horse won a race at Philadelphia PARX.

After losing the race, Shaw lodged a protest with race stewards at PARX, arguing that Cousin Stephen should not have been allowed to race. Chief Steward Jonathan S. Gerweck told Shaw that they would not disqualify Cousin Stephen because they had not received a timely protest of his eligibility.

Race rules in Pennsylvania stipulate that any disputes over the qualifications, entries, weight or other conditions of a race “shall be made in writing, signed by the complainant and be filed with the stewards at least 60 minutes before the scheduled post time of the race in question. A protest not timely made may be disallowed for that reason alone,” according to the appellate court’s decision.

At this point, Cousin Stephen was still the winner.

But Shaw wasn’t finished. He appealed the stewards’ ruling to the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, which granted his appeal. Although the commission held that the stewards did not “abuse their discretion” and “conceded that Shaw did not file a timely protest of Cousin Stephen’s eligibility… [it] nonetheless concluded that it must disqualify Cousin Stephen… to ‘prevent circumvention or evasion of the commission’s rules and regulations,’” according to the appellate court’s decision.

“The commission noted that its duty of maintaining the integrity of horse racing involved a duty to correct errors where they may occur, regardless of what triggered the investigation of the error,” Brobson wrote in the decision.

Additionally, the commission ordered that the winnings from the race be redistributed according to the revised order of finish.

Racing GAMbit LLC, however, appealed the commission’s decision, arguing that commission had erred in “granting an untimely appeal.”

The appellate judges agreed, ruling that the commission overstepped its bounds because its regulations give stewards the authority to reject untimely protests of race results. The judges further ruled that the commission should have ended its review of the matter after determining that the stewards had not abused their discretion.

“Upon determining that the stewards properly exercised their discretion in declining to disqualify Cousin Stephen, the commission should have ended its inquiry,” Brobson wrote in the decision. “…We conclude, therefore, that the commission erred as a matter of law in addressing the merits of the appeal after already concluding that the stewards did not abuse their discretion. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the commission and remand the matter to the commission with the instruction that it vacate the commission’s revised order of finish.”

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