In September 2022, the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission became the first North American jurisdiction to implement the Category 1 interference philosophy, used by all major racing jurisdictions worldwide.
After almost 800 races with the Category 1 rules in place, covering both Thoroughbreds at Remington Park and Quarter Horses at Will Rogers Downs, the stewards overseeing the races wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Category 1 rules are a step forward for American racing,” said Glen Murphy, who shifted from a 33-year career in the saddle, with more than 3,000 wins to his credit, to the stewards’ stand in 2017.
“I was a little skeptical when it was first announced, but I quickly realized how it simplified our job in making a decision when a foul was committed.”
Murphy’s remarks to the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF), and that of other stewards in Oklahoma who have adjudicated races under the Category 1 rules, came shortly after continuing education sessions, under the Racing Officials Accreditation Program, were held last week at Remington Park.
The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation championed a switch to Category 1 in its 2018 white paper, “Changing The Rules.”
“TIF hoped North American jurisdictions would recognize the need for global harmonization on the interference rule, and with that, improve transparency and communication with stakeholders on such incidents,” said TIF executive director Patrick Cummings.
“Someone was always going to have to be the first to give it a try, and that was Oklahoma.”
THE CATEGORY 1 EXPERIENCE
The change has been noticeable.
From nearly 500 races at Remington Park over three months, stewards demoted one horse from a total of 23 reviewed incidents (any time the stewards posted an inquiry or there was an objection lodged). At Will Rogers Downs, from almost 300 races run, the stewards demoted one horse from 18 reviewed incidents.
In 2021, over the comparative period of time, stewards at Remington demoted seven horses from 26 reviewed incidents, while 10 were demoted from 25 reviews at Will Rogers.
“These rules enable stewards to hold the culpable party responsible – that is, the jockey – without penalizing those who owned, conditioned and supported the best horse in the race,” said steward David Moore.
“We all had some reservations going into it, but after the training and experience enforcing it, I support it fully.”
Since no jurisdiction in North America operated under the Category 1 rule, stewards from the Hong Kong Jockey Club led the training of Oklahoma’s stewards through a series of interactive sessions, conducted remotely, in the months leading up to the change.
The Category 1 rules require stewards to change how they consider the impact of a foul that occurred during the running of a race. Under the Category 2 philosophy, which has generally existed in American racing since the 1930s, stewards are asked to determine if a foul cost a horse the opportunity for a better placing, regardless of the placing which it was cost, whether it had a meaningful impact on the final result of the race and irrespective of where the foul occurred.
Under Category 1, stewards consider that if a foul had not otherwise occurred, would the horse that suffered from the interference have finished ahead of the horse that caused the interference. If not, then no change is warranted.
“There is no doubt that the Category 2 rules are familiar to all stakeholders in American racing, but it led to inconsistencies, whether they were real or perceived” said steward Victor Escobar. “In my opinion, Category 1 provides the opportunity to be far more consistent in the application of a demotion rule.”
Commensurate with the change, Escobar took to the Remington Park simulcast feed minutes after an inquiry or objection was settled, explaining each decision since the transition to Category 1.
“This was obviously a change from past expectations of customers,” Escobar said. “It made sense to get on the microphone and explain the new rule, what we considered and the decision we made – all just minutes after the decision. That has been very well-received.”
Remington Park also plays a tutorial video (shown below) at the start of each day to remind participants of the change.
OTHERS CONSIDERING A SWITCH?
“We have had the conversation with several other regulators and stewards across North America who are watching Oklahoma’s transition closely,” said Cummings. “I would not be shocked to see a few more make the transition in the near future, but recognize this can be a time-consuming process. The goal is long-term, global harmonization around interference considerations and increased transparency when called into action.”
For those that have been critical of even considering the transition, one long-time steward and now executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, Scott Chaney suggested to TIF that any debate about the merits of a switch to Category 1 might already be over.
“I am not sure the pros and cons [of either Category 1 or 2] matter any longer given that pretty much the entire world uses Category 1 and [now] one U.S. state – and the sky has not fallen. It seems that there is some inevitability in motion.”
But change can be slow.
North American jurisdictions took the best part of 20 years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s to adopt the current standard known now as Category 2.
“News coverage from the first stewards to use the ‘new’ rules in the 1930s,” Cummings added, “suggests they greatly enjoyed applying what was an improved standard at the time because they transitioned away from the ‘foul is a foul’ concept and enabled stewards to finally consider whether interference cost a better placing. It took time for it to catch-on, but it was clearly an improvement.
“Now that the rules have evolved to enable greater consistency in decision-making, I am hopeful that the dominoes fall faster in modern times. Oklahoma made the first move in North America, the stewards there have embraced it wholeheartedly and others are recognizing it.
Craig Bernick, president and CEO of Glen Hill Farm and founder of TIF, said “the mission of TIF has been to improve the sport for horse owners and horseplayers. This is one more small step in that direction intended to yield a better overall experiences for those who participate in our sport.”
“Global harmonization is within reach.”