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Col. Clark and the rules of racing

Colonel M. L. Clark not only headed Churchill Downs but also served as chief “steward” of the racing — insisting on honesty, and an orderly presentation of the races. Turf, Field and Farm magazine noted that Clark had an uncanny sense for sniffing out skullduggery. “When he thought the betting looked suspicious, bets were declared off, jockeys were changed around, and 20 minutes allowed for the making of a new book,” the magazine reported.

Writer Peter Chew found a story in which the editor of Turf, Field and Farm spent a day with Clark in the judge’s stand at Churchill Downs. The stand was an innovation in racing, from which Clark could accurately judge the finish. The stand included what would be the first modern finish line.

“The judge’s box is 12 feet from the inner rail and just high enough to permit a line on the heads of the horses,” the magazine reported. “A tightly drawn cord between the two sighting rods helps in arriving at a correct conclusion when the finish is close. … The main dependence is in the quick sighting from rod to rod, and the eye must be trained to this as it is trained in quickly sighting a rifle at the head of a squirrel.”

Results were noted on a mechanized board that Clark, himself, operated from his stand.

Clark also kept an eye out for suspicious betting patterns. To quote from Turf, Field and Farm:

“Half an hour is given for the betting on each race, and two or three times in this interval the quotations from the betting ring are brought to presiding judge (Clark), and he compares them with the estimate of chances carefully prepared in advance. (His own ‘morning line.’) If anything looks suspicious, a button is touched and a bell which rings in the betting pavilion is a signal for speculation to stop. A single ring means saddle, and two rings means post. These signals are promptly obeyed, and there is neither confusion nor delay.

“As soon as the (starting) flag is flashed, the judge presses a button marked ‘off’ and the occupants of the ring know that the horses are in motion. When the horses finish, Colonel Clark has a pad before him with blank spaces for first, second and third horses. He jots down the numbers as he sees them pass the rod, signs his name and hands the slip to his two associate judges. If they agree with him, each adds his initials and then the formal announcement is read, and simultaneously the board giving the starters and time for the next race is swung into position.

“When the horses return to the stand, the winner takes his place in a half moon circle, and all the others are grouped around him, with heads facing the judge. Permission to dismount is then given, and saddles are quickly removed. There is no talk, no discussion, everything moving with clocklike precision. If a question should arise … the dispute is settled then and there.”

All this was new to racing. Over the years, the formalities of racing have evolved. Clark’s mechanized information board has been electrified, then computerized, and now digitized. But the dignity of the presiding judges and their absolute authority remains steadfast.

“The presiding judge and his assistants do not leave the stand for any purpose until the last race has been run,” the reporter continued. “Tea and light sandwiches are served at five o’clock. … A record of every horse ridden with spurs or whip is kept, and this is always ready for reference. If a horse that has been ridden (in previous races) with whip or spur is brought out minus persuaders, an explanation is asked, and if it is not satisfactory, a change is ordered.

“It is practically one man authority, but it works well, and prevents fraud. Punishment always swiftly follows crime and thus acts as a deterrent. There is no appeal from the decision of the presiding judge.”