The less you hear about them, the happier they’ll be.
Who am I talking about? The most important behind-the-scenes people in horse racing— government-appointed racing officials. They’re the stewards who patrol the backstretch and scrutinize all racing, and the two top officials of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission, which sets the rules and the tone for what the stewards do.
They’re all brand-new appointments. They’ve only been on the job for a month. And, if everything goes the way they want it to go, this is the last you’ll hear about them for a long time — unlike their predecessors, who had knack for getting a whack of bad publicity, some of which you read about here.
The former racing stewards left under a cloud of having screwed up the finish in a race last August, causing the track to pay out on the wrong order of finish for six minutes before their mistake was discovered. That’s about as serious a no-no as you’ll see in racing. And there was the case of a new jockey who had been slapped with a $500 abusive riding penalty without having been told what the riding rules are in Manitoba. (It was overturned upon appeal.) And the leading trainer, Shelley Brown, saying that a steward told her that if she didn’t like what they were doing, she should go somewhere else.
And the most celebrated case was a former jockey, Rocco Bowen, being fined $300 for standing in his irons and pumping the air just before the wire when he won a stakes race. The stewards called it "grandstanding." The horse’s trainer and owners helped the jockey pay that fine.
No more of that. Tom Goodman, the new chair of the racing commission, a lawyer who adjudicated human rights and labour code cases, said the mandatory fining schedule had been scrapped and the new policy will be one of "educating" errant jockeys rather than throwing the book at them.
He also said there is an awareness that jockeys don’t make a lot of money, so fines, when necessary, will not be overly punitive.
The other three race officials also have a lot of backstretch and fan respect. The commission vice-chair is easygoing Brian Billeck, a horseman since 1970.
The two new stewards are Brian Palaniuk, a former trainer at the Downs and at Woodbine in Toronto, and Grant Buckoski, a former gym teacher, horseplayer and horse owner.
And if I don’t write one more word about them during this race season, they’ll likely love it. Because that essentially means they are quietly, fairly, uncontroversially doing their jobs.
Live racing continues with Wednesdays added to the mix. So now it’s "Wed-Fri-Sat," an easy way to remember the race schedule. Always at 7:30 p.m.