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When he was a little younger, Judge George Schilling once closed a race meeting in Winnipeg, Man. on a Friday, flew to San Francisco for the opening day of Bay Meadows on Saturday and then on to Caliente for the Sunday card, thus becoming the only steward on record ever to officiate at three different tracks in three different countries on three consecutive days. The Judge is now 78 and rests his binoculars on a shelflike paunch that swells under an old-fashioned, wide-lapeled, enormously wrinkled suit, but he is at his place at the finish line every race day at Caliente, just south of the California border, adding to his reputation as the dean of American racing officials.
Through those binoculars Judge Schilling can still spot the color of a jockey's eyes at the quarter pole, not to mention the subtlest attempt at rough riding or any other shenanigans that a foolhardy boy might try to pull on him. So awesome is his reputation that his mere presence at a track is enough to keep the riding clean and honest. "The jockeys respect him so much," said Eddie Arcaro, who rode under all of the best modern officials, "that they don't even try to get away with anything."
The stewards' job is in many ways the most difficult and important at the track. When two horses bump, as they often do, the judges have a crucial decision to make. Did the inside horse cause the trouble by moving out, or the outside horse by moving in? Did the bumping keep one of the horses from winning? If so, the judges are duty-bound to take down the winner's number—a move that can cost its owner a big purse and force the spectators to tear up tens of thousands of dollars' worth of mutuel tickets. And then comes a further problem: Was the foul deliberate or was the horse out of control and following its own temperamental course? If the jockey was to blame, the Rules of Racing call for a suspension. But even a 10-day suspension can cost a leading rider at a big track as much as $10,000 to $20,000 in income—and if he was blameless, he certainly should not have to pay for his horse's antics.
The decisions are perplexing enough even today with the help of the camera. In the days before the patrol films, when all the stewards had to go on was their own split-second observation of the incident plus the usually conflicting stories of the jockeys, the job was infinitely tougher. Nor was it helped any by the spectators, who were understandably partisan. "Every time we had a foul claim," the Judge recalls, "we had a howling mob around the stewards' stand—half of them yelling, 'Foul!' and the other half yelling, 'No foul!' " It was in those days, when a steward needed courage as well as 20-20 vision, that the Judge made his reputation.
Many stewards are so intoxicated by the power they wield that they become as remote and unapproachable as if they were sitting on the Supreme Court. Schilling, on the other hand, has the jolly disposition to match his Falstaffan figure. He is a friendly man and easily moved to laughter; he likes to drop into the jockeys' room to joke with the riders or offer them some homespun and fatherly advice. Moreover, he was once an exercise boy, though you would hardly suspect it to look at him now, and he knows from experience how hard it is to control a 1,000-pound horse moving at a speed of better than 35 mph.
Recently the Judge had to disqualify a winning horse because it bore in sharply on the final turn, bumping the horses on the inside and nearly knocking them into the rail. Like all good stewards, the Judge is a close student of horses' habits, and he knew that this one had no previous record of lugging in—so it looked like a clear case of rough riding, a jockey trying to win a race by cutting off the competition. Many stewards would have handed out a 10-day suspension. Judge Schilling waited until he had had a chance to talk to the jockey, who claimed that the horse had seemed to go sore suddenly, favor its right foreleg and bear in, despite his best efforts to keep it straight. The Judge sent an emissary to talk to the trainer. Yes, said the trainer, the horse had been re-shod the day before the race and apparently the blacksmith had trimmed off too much hoof; at the moment the horse's feet hurt so badly that it was lying down in its stall, unable to stand. Case dismissed—and another jockey won by the Judge as a friend for life.
On the other hand, the Judge can be as tough as any of them when the occasion demands. He once handed out a long suspension to a jockey who had racked up a field and nearly knocked down half of it by swerving to the outside from the No. 1 post. One of the jockey's friends said sorrowfully, "Judge Schilling, what became of your milk of human kindness?" "It curdled," said the Judge, "when I saw that boy try to kill all the others."
Safety is indeed almost an obsession with the Judge. In his long career he has seen half a dozen jockeys killed, and he hopes never to see another. When an apprentice boy, eager to make a name for himself, tries to steer his horse through too narrow an opening, the Judge likes to sit down with him and say, "Son, you just can't throw a cat through a rathole—and if you try it, somebody's going to get hurt." The feuds that sometimes flare up between riders always worry him until he has managed to get the boys together and induced them to shake hands.
Honesty is his other passion. Back in the '30s, at a half-mile track where he was officiating, he decided that some of the jockeys were "cutting up" the races. In those days, without the evidence of patrol cameras, it was hard to prove a case of race-fixing—but the Judge called in an apprentice boy whom he considered the weakest link in the chain, and by dint of his remarkable ability to point out exactly how the jockeys had been maneuvering their horses, he got a full confession. He suspended six riders for life, and when the track owners decided to reduce the suspensions, he walked off the job.
Like most good stewards—as opposed to the kind who are appointed through political pull or friendship with the owner of the track—the Judge came up through the ranks. He began training for the job when he played hooky from school to watch his first race at the old Bay District track in San Francisco, around the year 1895. Children had to be accompanied by an adult to get in, and he hung around the entrance until he found a man willing to pretend to be his father. When he got home his absence from school had already been reported, but the day seemed worth the licking he got. He was a steady patron of the track thereafter, though prudently confining his visits to Saturdays and vacation time. When unable to find a substitute parent at the track gate, he would walk around to the backstretch, watch the races from one of the eucalyptus trees that lined the outside rail and make nickel and dime bets with a man there known as the Gum-Tree Bookie.