If Woodbine jockey Sahin Civaci were a hockey player in the NHL, he’d be Connor McDavid – but a version of McDavid that spends a lot of time in the penalty box.

Perusing the 384 rulings and penalties handed down this past year by stewards at Canada’s five major Thoroughbred tracks (175 more than last year!), Civaci emerges as the feature attraction. Of course, that depends if the words “feature attraction” could be applied in the same breath to someone who was Woodbine’s top percentage rider and, on the other extreme, a rider who was suspended the most times for errant riding, was given the biggest fine for whipping too much and was also slapped with the largest fine for not trying hard enough.

His aggressive riding made him the darling of players who bet on him, but the bane of stewards whose job it is to regulate jockeys’ actions.

Woodbine stewards handed down 26 three-day suspensions to jockeys who interfered with other horses in a race. Civaci was king; he got eight of them. That meant he was forced to sit out one out of every five race days in the 128-day meet. But, on the flip side, he was winning at a higher rate than any other rider. He won 23 per cent of his races – 129 of 556 starts.

And on the whipping side he tied for the biggest fine in the country – $1,800 – for hitting his horse, Frac Dancer, way over the three-strikes-and-wait limit in winning the Clarendon Stakes. “I felt him getting tired,” he told an interviewer after the race. His fine was 20 per cent of his race winnings.

And in the “not trying hard enough” category, Civaci was hit with a $1,000 fine — again the biggest in the country— for “failing to persevere with Elysian Field approaching the finish line” in the third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Stakes. Elysian Field, who had won the Woodbine Oaks and finished second in the King’s Plate, had finished second in that “failing to persevere” race, too.

But hold on: the Equibase results chart on the Breeders’ Stakes contradicts the stewards’ findings. It reads: “Elysian Field battled stubbornly to the finish.” Hmm. You decide. Watch that race here.

Other headlines and oddball incidents

A jockey on a horse giving a thumbs-up.

Smokin’ hot… Century Mile jockey Alexander Marti. (Chris Tian Photography/Alexander Marti Facebook)

Beyond Civaci’s dominance in the penalty box — and his pre-eminence in the winner’s circle — what were other headlines and oddball incidents among the 384 rulings? Despite Hasting’s short 44-day season, stewards there were the busiest, meting out 136 rulings, followed by Century Mile with 102, Woodbine with 73, Assiniboia Downs with 47 and Fort Erie with 26.

  • It was a case of bad news/good news for Woodbine trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. The bad news was that he was fined $5,000 for failing to get permission from stewards to enter a recently-claimed horse, Cotton, in a race at Fair Grounds. (Without permission, a horse claimed in Ontario isn’t supposed to race outside the province for 90 days.) And the good news? Cotton earned $9,000 U.S. for Joseph for finishing fourth in the Fair Grounds race.
  • Then at Hastings there was this bit of creativity by jockey Kimal Santo that stewards didn’t appreciate. After dropping his whip during a race aboard the filly Licorice, he ripped off his goggles and used them to continue to urge his mount. Not amused or impressed, the stewards fined him $50 for “indiscriminately striking his horse.”
  • And there was this puzzler at Hastings: Trainer Edgar Medoza was fined $100 “for failing to ensure the proper identity of all horses under his care and custody.”
  • Century Mile jockeys Alexander Marti and Keihton Natera were suspended for 10 calendar days and fined $200 and $150 respectively for testing positive for marijuana use, making it Marti’s second year in a row for a pot positive.
  • There was also the curious change-of-heart case at Woodbine where owner/trainer Harold Ladouceur “entered a claim for a horse . . . and subsequently retrieved the claim prior to the race.” That cost him $1,000.
  • One wonders, too, exactly what was going on when Woodbine jockey Patrick Husbands “disturbed the peace by word/action in the jockeys’ quarters and paddock.” What did he say? What did he do? Suffice to say, it cost Husbands $300.
  • Polite verbiage was dropped in other findings of unacceptable behaviour in the Woodbine backstretch. “Disturbed the peace and made himself obnoxious,” wrote the Woodbine stewards in fining trainer Michael Dunslow $200 for an incident in his barn.

Such was the soap opera-style drama laid bare in steward rulings.

Interference penalties costliest at Woodbine

Generally speaking, Woodbine riders faced the stiffest penalties for actions that might even have resulted in an “official warning” at Hastings.

Causing interference resulted in an automatic three-day suspension at Woodbine, but at Hastings and ASD usually a $100 fine, at Century Mile a one-day suspension and at Fort Erie, two days.

However, there were exceptions at Hastings and Century Mile. Top riders drew the heaviest penalties, similar to Civaci at Woodbine. Hastings’ leading rider Amadeo Perez was hit with two $500 fines and a $100 fine for interference. Similarly, Century Mile’s Jose Mariano Ascensio, who was tied with Dane Nelson for leading percentage jockey with 22 per cent wins, was suspended for three days out of the total 10 days meted out at the entire meet and Nelson got one day.

The correlation seems clear: Jocks who grate can also be great.

What’s this? Riders suspended after being thrown from horses

Stewards at Woodbine and Fort Erie are now suspending riders who get unseated from their horses. Those suspensions last until the riders complete a concussion protocol. In other words, concussion concerns, common in other sports, have expanded to include horse racing.

Woodbine’s winningest rider, Kazushi Kimura, was among five riders (two at Fort Erie, three at Woodbine) who were forced during the race season to undergo the protocol. Kimura was suspended after being unseated during the first race on Saturday, July 8 when his horse, Uncle Bull, clipped heels. He wasn’t allowed to return for 12 days but did so with a vengeance by winning with his only mount on the card.

Will the other three Canadian tracks follow Ontario’s lead? A British study found that concussions account for four to 12 per cent of rider injuries in horse racing.

Crop violations: ASD’s Stephenson was the top offender

Jockeys at Hastings and Assiniboia Downs (ASD) chalked up more riding crop violations than jockeys at the other three tracks. There were 20 each at Hastings and ASD compared to 10 at Woodbine, three at Century Mile and two at Fort Erie. The heaviest penalties:

  • ASD jockey Neville Stephenson (eight per cent wins) led the country with six infractions resulting in $1,800 in fines and three days in suspensions. He either hit his horse more than the allowable 10 times during the race and/or didn’t comply with the two-hits, two-strides-to-respond rule. Jockeys also cannot raise their whipping wrist above their helmet at ASD.
  • Woodbine jockey Eswan Flores (12 per cent wins) received two $500 fines combined with three-day suspensions. One was for raising his whipping hand above his head and the other was for continuing to urge his mount even though the horse “was not in contention for a meaningful position.” Woodbine jockeys also cannot strike a horse more than three times in a row without allowing a horse to respond. The same rule is in effect at Hastings, Fort Erie and Century Mile.

And how big were the penalties? Some riders got a break at Hastings where they received only “official warnings” for crop misuse. In other cases at the West Coast track, fines started at $50 for a first offence and increased by $50 for each subsequent offense. At Century Mile it was either a $100 fine or one-day suspension; at ASD fines started at $100 and at Woodbine and Fort Erie fines started at $200.

Century Mile horse owner takes $500 hit for swearing

It goes without saying that emotions run high in a sport where competition is stiff and winning is everything. So the “racing police” had their hands full trying to keep everybody under control.

Hastings stewards led the five tracks, handing down 13 fines of $100 or $200 for “improper behaviour” or “offensive language” in incidents involving the province’s racing inspector, security guard, other racing officials and licensees and for a “disturbance in the race office.”

While Woodbine stewards penalized only seven cases of improper behaviour with fines of $100 to $300, they were the most colourful in their language, describing behaviour in several of the cases as “obnoxious.”

The biggest fine levelled at the five tracks was at Century Mile where horse owner Lori Lynn Neyka was fined $500 “for swearing at another racing participant after race four on Saturday, Aug. 12.”

Drug offences net fines of $500 to $1,500

Chestnut horse galloping with jockey.

Mano Dura winning the Manitoba Derby for trainer Jerry Gourneau with Antonio Whitehall up; both received fines for minor infractions in 2023. (Jason Halstead photo)

Every track was hit with drug infractions, but they were relatively minor:

  • Without naming the prohibited substance, ASD stewards fined trainer Elton Dickey $1,000 for one positive test result and $1,000 plus a two-day suspension for another. And leading trainer Jerry Gourneau was fined $1,000 and suspended two days when a horse was accidentally given a food bucket containing a prohibited substance meant for treating the horse in the adjoining stall.
  • At Hastings, trainer Greg Beneen was fined $1,250 when a blood test resulted in a furosemide (Lasix) infraction.
  • At Woodbine, trainer Ross Armata was fined $1,000 and suspended for 15 calendar days for a positive test for clenbuterol, a syrup used to treat airway obstruction. Also at Woodbine, trainer John Mattine was fined $500 and suspended three days for a class IV positive of flunixin, an anti-inflammatory used to treat colic pain.
  • At Century Mile, trainer Madison Zielke was fined $1,500 for dexamethasone “over the limit allowed.” The drug is used to treat allergies in horses.
  • At Fort Erie, trainer Steven Cathcart was fined $500 for an overage of furosemide (Lasix)

In addition, Fort Erie owner/trainer Jeff Voyce was fined $500 for “failing to disclose pertinent information for an unlabelled substance” found in an inspection of his vehicle.

Jockeys fined for not trying hard enough

Horseplayers want their jockeys to be trying hard to win the race they bet on, so are happy to see stewards aggressively policing this aspect of riding. The $1,000 fine assessed Woodbine jockey Sahin Civaci (see top of article) was, by far, the biggest penalty in 2023 for a jockey not trying hard enough.

Aside from that, ASD leading jockey Antonio Whitehall was fined $100 at ASD “for not riding out his mount” and an additional $100 at Century Mile for “easing his mount before the finish line.” Seven other $100 fines were levelled at Century Mile for similar offences and another at ASD. Just three “easing before the finish line” rulings were levelled at Hastings. Riders received $50 fines.

Woodbine stewards give Kimura a memorable send-off

Before Woodbine’s winningest jockey, Kazushi Kimura, left for Santa Anita for the winter, Woodbine stewards presented him with a parting “gift:” a three-day suspension for “interfering with other horses in the first turn” in the first race on Dec. 10. That means he’ll start off Woodbine’s 2024 season by having to sit out April 27, April 28 and May 4. Quite the memorable send-off!