- Published: Wednesday, 19 August 2015 20:52
When veteran stewards John Burke and Phil Grove retired this spring, Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, launched a national search for strong candidates to replace them. What he got are two experienced men – Ross Pearce and Russell Derderian – who bring maturity, integrity, congenial personalities and new perspectives to the stewards’ stand.
“We had 26 applicants and Ross’ and Russell’s credentials as stewards over a long period of time stood out,” said Maryland Racing Commission board member David Hayden, who served on the search committee. “Wherever they were they did a very good job. We’ll miss the old guys, but guess what? We hired two new very experienced old guys to replace them. We’re excited to have them on the team.”
Pearce, 59, and Derderian, 66, joined chief steward Adam Campola, 53, the first week of August.
“I am still the youngest,” said a smiling Campola, who became chief steward this spring after four years as a Maryland steward.
While the men joke about their ages, Hopkins, who made the hires, said age was never a factor in his decision.
“It was all about their experiences and abilities,” Hopkins said. “How they interact with people was very important. They have to learn to get along with each other every day. Personality is huge.”
Hopkins said the fact the newcomers are accredited by Racing Officials Accreditation Program (ROAP) is also of major importance to him.
“It’s not a requirement in Maryland,” Hopkins said. “But the fact that they both are shows a good base of understanding.”
The camaraderie already seems to be growing. Campolla though sad to be saying goodbye to two very experienced men who had become his friends, expressed satisfaction with saying hello to two others with long horse racing backgrounds.
“You need people in this job with full horse backgrounds so you can have an educated view,” the chief steward said. “I was a jockey, Ross was a trainer and in steeplechasing and Russell was a trainer. If you didn’t train or ride you don’t know the circumstances that can be at play during a race.”
Campola said the three will develop into a team. “We now have two new sets of eyes and new perspectives,” he said. “The rules are the rules, but the way we get to the final decision will or may be different. Each of us has a voice. Each of us has a right to express our opinions and then we’ll come to the final decisions.”
Racing stewards oversee race meetings. In Maryland, the stewards enforce the rules of the state during races, investigate possible infractions, conduct hearings and take disciplinary action against those found guilty of violations, like handing out fines or suspensions.
Derderian grew up with horses, riding hunters and jumpers when he was 10 and going to work at the racetrack for the past 47 years, first working as a hot walker and groom. He has been accredited twice as a steward, once in 1994 and again in 2011, when he returned to a steward job after years of horse training. He got his training license as a 24-year-old and has more than 20 years of training experience at both public and private stables, including those of Frank Stronach, who owns the Maryland racetracks.
In Maryland, it should be noted, the stewards don’t work for the tracks the way they sometimes do in other parts of the country. Instead, they work for the state.
But Derderian said when he saw the steward’s job advertised in Maryland, he was excited to apply for it because he knew who owned the tracks.
“My feeling was Maryland racing is on the up-swing due mostly to Stronach’s dedication to the racing business,” he said. “[Stronach has] a different vision. His company wants racing to continue and is all in as far as racing is concerned. The tracks that have improved purely on casino money in other states have seen that money taken away. Stronach wants to develop racing to make it on its own.
“With Tim Ritvo [chief operating officer of racing for The Stronach Group] and Sal Sinatra [Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer] in place here, I don’t think I could find a better home.”
Derderian said to be a good steward, a person has to have “a judicial temperament.”
“Sometimes things come at you,” he said. “As a steward you have to be able to listen to everyone. To rule fairly is very important to me.”
He added however, he hates the word consistent.
“Everyone wants you to be consistent,” he said. “Umpires and stewards have to be consistent – that means without variation in each case. Well, in racing each race is different. The rules are the same, but the stewards, what we’re challenged to do is interpret and enforce those rules. In racing you sometimes need to have the latitude to interpret [the rule] differently.”
Pearce, the other new steward, trained horses for 20 years at Buckland Farm in Kentucky, winning 50 stakes and several Grade I’s, before becoming a steward for the National Steeplechase Association in 2003. At the same time, he also worked as an alternate steward at the thoroughbred races at Delaware Park. He says the challenge of the job is making “split- second decisions with a lot of thought.”
Three stewards, he said, might not see the same thing the same way every time and noted ongoing discussions occur during many races.
Campolla and Pearce recalled a recent incident at Laurel Park that demonstrated Derderian’s point about consistency. The rule states a jockey can’t intentionally interfere with another horse. When a jockey moved his horse in front of another coming down the stretch, Pearce noted the jockey had looked back, “but I might have thought he was trying to stop the other, closing horse.”
But Campola said he believed the closing horse was coming so fast it was difficult for the other jockey to judge his closing speed. After a discussion, the move was judged a “natural occurrence,” but the rule didn’t change.
“The most valuable trait for a steward is a level head,” said Pearce. “To see situations from both or all sides and make a rational decision is what you want and have to do.”
Pearce is from Monkton, where he lives on Oakland Farm, which has been in his family for at least 200 years. His Maryland roots, he said, run deep.
“There is an old story that our farm was owned by Col. Jacob Myers Pearce during the War of 1812,” Pearce said. “It is said that his son, a 12-year-old, drove him [by horse and wagon] to the battle of North Point. While Col. Pearce fought in the war in which our national anthem was written, his son came home to harvest the crops and take care of the farm until his dad came home from fighting.We have five houses on it now and over 100 acres. It’s not owned just by me, but by our whole family, my cousins share the ownership. We share the barns, too, and we get along well enough to keep it in the family. A lot of people have had to let their farms go. We’re very lucky.”
He said he is also very lucky to have his new job.
Thankfully, Mike Hopkins hired me,” Pearce said. “I’ve been building up to this job for a long time. The three of us are getting along fine and everyone has been helpful and friendly. I’m glad to be here.”