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Slow justice for Dave Smith, Kempton judge who played fast and loose 14/07/2013
Greg Wood
Racing's bad news travels quickly but BHA took five days to put matters right after Kempton 'dead-heat'

The first thing that should be said about Dave Smith, who was relieved of his duties as a racecourse judge last week after 13 years in the job, is that at least 99% of the time, he was good at his job. The second is that in a position with the power to shift six- or even seven-figure sums from one pocket to another, even a 0.5% failure rate is unacceptable.

It took Smith 50 seconds to determine and then declare the result in a seven-furlong maiden at Kempton Park on 26 June, which went to a photo-finish between Extra Noble, the even-money favourite, and Fire Fighting, a 16-1 chance.

By Smith's well-established quick-fire standards, 50 seconds was nothing new, almost dragging his heels in fact. In this instance, though, the "result" was that the pair could not be separated. "That was very quick for a dead-heat," observed one of Racing UK's studio pundits as this was announced. "That was very quick," his colleague agreed. "Dave Smith's on tonight, isn't he?"

Five days later, the British Horseracing Authority announced that, having contacted Smith and asked him to reconsider, he had decided that in fact, Extra Noble had held on to first place by a nose. This was five days too late for favourite-backers who had already been paid out – or short-changed, to be more precise – on the original decision.

We all make mistakes, journalists included, so it may seem unfair to criticise Smith too harshly for doing the same. I've made some toe-curlers over the last 20-odd years, most of which, thanks either to a good subeditor or an alert lawyer, have failed to make it into print.

Smith did not have an equivalent safety net. But he did have more than 50 seconds to make a decision. No one would have cared if it had taken three or four minutes to announce the result, had it been the right one. Smith, though, always seemed to see it as a matter of honour that he could announce the result of a close finish – sometimes without even calling for a photo – faster than any judge in the business.

It is a little like pushing all-in at every possible opportunity in a game of poker: a tactic that works just fine, until it doesn't. The modern technology available to judges is impressive, and makes the job easier, and generally quicker, than in the past, which in turn helps to keep money turning over in the shops. But in a very tight finish it will never be sufficiently easy, or swift, to justify a 50-second turnaround for a dead-heat, even if it proves to be the correct decision.

Some bookmakers did pay out on both results, because it was worth it for the PR value, but others did not. Most of us have had the miserable experience of backing the "winner" on the wrong side of the track in a big sprint handicap, but backing an actual winner and still not being paid out in full is a good deal worse. Nothing annoys a punter more than getting it right and still feeling robbed.

It took the BHA longer to amend the result of this Kempton maiden than it did to charge, try and ban Mahmood al-Zarooni for the dopings at Godolphin in April, but it got there in the end. The decision to strip Smith of his role as a judge also suggests at least some appreciation of the anger that punters will have felt about this error.

But since his name came up, it can only be hoped that there will be a similar understanding of the widespread concern about Zarooni's actions when the BHA concludes its investigation into the biggest doping scandal in the sport's history. .

As yet, the authority has not even committed to publishing its findings in full. It is this case, and not the reaction to a quickfire judge who shot first once too often, which will determine whether the BHA can be trusted to look after the integrity of the sport.

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