Photo of Secret Gesture in front of Stephanie’s Kitten, cropped from larger image courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.

In the aftermath of the disqualification of Secret Gesture from her victory in the Beverly D. (G1) for hampering Stephanie’s Kitten, there’s been chatter on social media critical of Stephanie’s Kitten’s rider, Irad Ortiz Jr. The argument is that Ortiz’s reaction on “Stephanie” actually contributed more to her losing second place late, and finishing third across the wire, than Secret Gesture’s initial outward drift.

I wasn’t going to reopen the can of worms here, since my Beverly D. recap covered the rationale for the disqualification. But two things have prompted me to revisit the controversy: the fact that Secret Gesture’s connections — Qatar Racing Ltd., Newsells Park Stud, and trainer Ralph Beckett — are in the process of appealing the stewards’ ruling, and especially after Secret Gesture’s rider, Jamie Spencer, openly criticized Ortiz on his blog (available on the Coral website).

As a preamble, I feel very bad for Spencer, who must have thought he was reliving a nightmare to be disqualified from another clear-cut winner on Arlington’s big day. The Powerscourt DQ still hurts me, and it surely gutted him even more.

I feel even worse for Spencer because of the backstory to this race. He’d lost the position of Qatar Racing’s number one rider going into the year, prompting his decision to retire from the saddle. Last fall, you could see in his interviews that he was sad about the situation and more resigned than enthusiastic about hanging up his tack. So I was thrilled when he reconsidered, “unretired” in December, and came back as a freelancer. He’s got many years ahead of him as a major international rider, and I’m happy — for his sake — that he didn’t consent to be kicked over to the Qatar Racing front office in an “advisory” capacity.

With that background, you can see what it meant for Spencer to regain the mount on Secret Gesture for this foreign assignment. And it’s equally clear how much of a blow it was to lose the race, for of all people, Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing operation, in the stewards’ room.

That said, I find it very unfair for Spencer to launch a broadside against another rider for reacting to something that he himself either caused, or contributed to. However charitably you view Spencer’s role in the situation, the fact remains that he was responsible for keeping his mount on a straight path, and he was unable to do so.

This reminds me of the tactic used by defense attorneys when they want to make the plaintiff look unsympathetic, or even unsavory. It’s a clever way to change the subject, take the onus off your client, and muddy the waters, by putting the plaintiff on trial.

OK then, let’s look at Ortiz: he had no choice but to steady as Secret Gesture drifted right toward his path. Stephanie had taken a little while to hit top gear, understandably in the yielding conditions, but she was now either at or approaching her peak momentum.

You’re on a high-class horse, whose competitive streak is fully engaged, in attack mode, and bearing down on a rival. That rival now lurches several paths out toward you. Instinctively, in a split-second reaction, you protect your horse from potentially clipping heels, and yourself from a possible spill. You have to check, or you’d be irresponsible.

Here’s where the “atmospherics” come in. Did Ortiz deliberately overreact to make the interference look damning to the stewards? It would be not only plausible, but perfectly logical, to deduce that he saw a DQ coming. And it’s also quite probable that he didn’t see Watsdachances, the eventual second at the wire, barreling late well to his inside. Ortiz may well have thought he’d get the win via DQ.

Spencer — and to be fair, he’s hardly the only one to say this — says on his blog that Ortiz took a dive.

I don’t like using a soccer analogy because the situations are not analogous. Soccer players perform their theatrics on a field unlikely to witness much mayhem or carnage (unless you include the hooligans in the stands or on the streets, but that’s a different matter). When you have a half-ton animal barreling forward, in danger of colliding with another half-ton animal, you’re running a far greater risk to life and limb.

But for the sake of argument, let’s put the worst construction on Ortiz’s behavior in the saddle, and assume that he was playing for the cameras in expectation of getting the victory tossed right into his lap.

To me, the salient point is, once Ortiz had to steady, what were his options in the final strides to the wire? I don’t think it was advisable to try to keep advancing on the outside, or else he’d have a reasonable chance of having to snatch up again. He’d have to be omniscient to foresee whether Secret Gesture was going to stay straight or keep coming.

Could Ortiz have been more aggressive and energetic in response, altering course to the inside of Secret Gesture? Sure, but how much would that have accomplished at this point? Had he done so, Stephanie would have lost ground while executing the maneuver. More tellingly, she was out of time to regroup and regain forward progress, particularly on the rain-softened ground. This wasn’t like a lightning-quick Saratoga or Del Mar, where you knife through in two jumps. This was a slog, and by the time Stephanie would have recovered her momentum, the race is over.

Meanwhile, Watsdachances was running her race, rallying strongly in those eventful final yards to edge Stephanie by a neck. Whatever you think of Ortiz’s reaction, it’s difficult to envision how Stephanie, once her momentum was arrested, could have had time to pick up again and outfinish Watsdachances.

If the incident had happened a little earlier, Ortiz would have had realistic options to recover. And he would have been at fault if he failed to exercise those options. But it didn’t.

One thing we can agree on, though: Secret Gesture was undoubtedly the best, and the moral winner. It’s a shame that she’s penalized, but these are the rules. If she hadn’t been wayward, Stephanie has no misfortune.

I’d really like to see what you think. Whether you imagine I’m right, wrong, crazy, don’t know how to watch a race, or need glasses, please weigh in with your comments!