Between The Lines: Ontario judges begin tweeting decisions

It’s a good first step, but further transparency is needed.

by Brett Sturman

On April 10, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) launched a new pilot project in which the live tweeting of race officials’ calls is posted to the AGCO Racing’s Twitter page in real time, as the decisions are made. The intent of the initiative is to provide transparency with regards to judges’ calls made during a race, pursuant to the AGCO press release announcing the project. Currently, the pilot project is only running at The Raceway at Western Fair District, a half-mile track in London, ON.

A review of @AGCO_Racing account on Twitter shows what all tweets consist of since the project began on April 10. For example, from Wednesday April 19 there are a series of tweets from Race 5 on the card and they are as follows: LON, R5: Inquiry posted. LON, R5: All horses received a fair start. LON, R5: No. 6 was inside 2 pylons and not lapped, no violations.

The AGCO Racing initiative looks like an honest gesture and has a nice feel about it, but it illustrates just how far away harness racing is from real transparency. The information provided in these tweets are largely the type of minimal information already provided through a track’s in-house simulcast feed.

The project, though, does begin to address the oft-overlooked issue of accountability and transparency of judges. At most harness tracks, when a disqualification or non-disqualification is made following an inquiry, rarely do we ever hear an explanation from the judges themselves. Most often that duty is oddly left to the track announcer, or to another, sometimes hapless person, left with the unenviable task of explaining a controversial decision, that wasn’t even that person’s own decision to begin with. Judges shouldn’t be above reproach, and not only should the stewards themselves be the ones to explain the decision and the rules that were broken, but they should also have to walk through the rationale being their decision.

In harness racing almost all inquiries are largely subjective. What might be a pylon violation in one race might not be a violation in the next race. Similarly, there is often little rhyme or reason when it comes to the re-placing a horse to another position that went on a break at some point during a race. How about some of those highly controversial disqualifications where the winner was DQ’d for racing “too slow” on the front end? Because current processes today lack transparency, judge’s decisions naturally bring on speculation.

Albeit at a much slower rate than it should be, transparency is still evolving. It was only a couple of decades ago in thoroughbred racing when a steward’s video feed was introduced to the general public. But what is amazing in harness racing is that while most of the top tier harness tracks in North America such as WEG and the Meadowlands will show repeated video from various camera angles as an inquiry is ongoing, most harness tracks still don’t show anything during an inquiry. All we’re left with is either video staring at a tote board with an ‘x’ next to a number, or an inquiry graphic on a grainy simulcast feed. And while this is going on, we are left in the dark with no idea as to what is being discussed and in some cases with the alleged infractions even is.

Although the AGCO is replicating on Twitter what should easily be communicated through the track’s simulcast feed, trying to use social media as an additional medium in today’s age is commendable. However, I have a much better idea in terms of what should be done if we’re talking about an online presence. What should be done as a pilot, is to utilize something such as Facebook Live. In this case, there would be a camera directly in the judges’ room that would broadcast live so that anyone following a track’s Facebook page could watch the discussions and deliberations live as they occur.

It probably sounds like a radical idea, but racing jurisdictions in other parts of the world already have cameras in the judges rooms and it goes to show that we are truly light years behind others in terms of transparency.

In Great Britain thoroughbred racing, as one example, live video can be seen on simulcast feeds that show the entire process play out from the steward’s room. In the video included in this column, both jockeys make their case in front of the judges, as we’re able to hear the complete discussion and questions being posed. Now I don’t expect this to become the norm in North American harness racing overnight, but it does show what could be possible if racing commissions want to strive for total and open transparency.

Another part of the AGCO pilot is that there will be a Race Official’s Race Report detailing the events of each race card and it will be posted to both the Standardbred Canada and Western Fair websites. This too is an important step in moving forward with accountability. It mirrors what we see in other parts of the world where racing and gambling is taken seriously, in which daily written reports from the stewards are mandated.

The concept of judges being forced to explain themselves in these reports is a welcomed measure that will help lead to ensuring the integrity of racing and the racing commissions themselves, which is the primary reason they exist in the first place. Instead of decisions being shrouded in secrecy, judges should now have to explain what, specifically, they observed that led to decisions that they made. Their decisions impact not only bettors where there could be hundreds of thousands of dollars bet into a race that hangs in the balance, but it also impacts all drivers, trainers and owners of horses involved in these decisions.

The AGCO initiative is addressing an issue that clearly needs to be modernized. Following the conclusion of the Western Fair meet, the project will be reviewed as to determine if it should move forward, expand, or be discontinued. For the sake of transparency, I hope this project is only the very first step.