The indelible image from last Saturday’s running of the Kentucky Derby wasn’t the magnificent scrum of horses thundering down the stretch in front of a roaring crowd, hooves churning mud, the twin spires of Churchill Downs framing the background.
Rather, it was a handful of stoop-shouldered stewards squinting at a video monitor in a dimly lit replay room while the jockey and trainer of the horse that crossed the finish first waited outside in the rain for a verdict, ankles deep in the sloppy track.
The stewards, of course, eventually disqualified apparent champion Maximum Security for veering out at the top of the stretch, slowing other horses. The controversial decision made a winner of 65-1 longshot Country House, who was surging at the end of the race but was no one’s idea of the best runner on the track.
Maximum Security’s owner appealed the stewards’ ruling to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and was shot down almost immediately. Now, Gary West is threatening legal action, calling Churchill Downs “greedy.”
The most exciting two minutes in sports? Only if you’re a lawyer.
The proliferation of video review, for everything from horse racing and football to baseball and professional bull riding, threatens to make high-level competitions as exciting as a mid-afternoon Power Point presentation.
The idea, it seems, is to eliminate the human element in refereeing sports and “get the call right” every time.
Video review corrupted Sunday afternoons watching football more than a generation ago. It spread its coaxial cords into the batter’s box in 2014.
Cameras were deployed in all of the big league parks that season so that a gang of officials watching from New York could scrutinize tags at second, or whether a fan prevented an outfielder leaning over the fence from catching a ball. Was the result been better baseball? We’re not so sure.
This quest for precision includes cameras trained on the strike zone. No surprise that a research team at Boston University scrutinized the data they’ve collected — from some 4 million pitches over 11 seasons — and found an “error rate” they called “troubling.”
Strikes called as balls, or balls called as strikes, happen roughly 12 percent of the time, according to a report published last month. In any given inning last season, the home-plate umpire made one to two bad calls.
Most baseball fans could’ve spared the BU researchers the trouble.
Calling balls and strikes, at its core, is an imperfect exercise. It’s up to the judgement of a person trying to gauge the trajectory of a ball flying toward them at 100 mph, if not faster, through an ill-defined area roughly coinciding with the knees and torso of a body in motion. All while wearing a mask.
Sure, we’ve long had technology that could automate a strike zone. Why would we?
Working the ump is as much a part of the duty of catchers and pitchers as is playing head games with runners on first base. Besides, what umpire hasn’t widened the strike zone on a sultry afternoon when one team is blowing out the other, in the interest of getting everyone home?
“Getting it right every time” makes sports more a function of competing against cameras and computers, as competing against each other. Unless the refs or umps are particularly bad or biased, everyone plays at the mercy of their eyes and ears.
Besides, getting it right all the time is impossible.
The stewards at Churchill Downs had the best in technology, and their decision will be debated for decades to come. Instant replay was famously not used to correct a missed pass interference call in the New Orleans Saints-Los Angeles Rams NFC championship game this past January.
And speaking of champions, mention instant replay and “the tuck rule” to a Raiders fan sometime; be sure to step back for their reaction.
With every advancement in technology, a little bit more of the flow of the game, a little bit more of the in-contest drama, is lost.
We know video review is here to stay. Yet we can’t help but be a little nostalgic for times past. Who wants to hear “Havlicek stole the ball! Maybe! Let’s check the tape!”