‘If You Can’t Split ‘Em, Dead Heat ‘Em!’ Putting Up The Wrong Numbers At Miles Park

For those racing fans old enough to remember, the recent Kentucky Downs race where the placing judges initially put up the wrong numbers of the first- and second-place finishers brought back memories of that same mistake on a dark and stormy night at Louisville’s venerable Miles Park 46 years ago. There was one key difference: The error at Kentucky Downs this week was caught (and corrected) before the race was declared “official,” while the bad numbers at Miles Park were only changed hours after the “official” sign was posted, too late for those in attendance who held tickets on the real winner.

On July 4, 1974, during what turned out to be Miles Park’s last full year of racing, the popular half-mile oval deep in Louisville’s West End was enjoying good-sized crowds and handle for the one day (Saturdays) and five nights it raced. Opened in 1956 as a harness track, it was re-named in 1958 for noted businessman and horse-owner J. Fred Miles, but to its loyal patrons it was always called “Smiles” Park. I was helping to put myself through law school at the University of Louisville by working in the track’s clubhouse dining room as a $20-a-night mutuel clerk.

That year was a traumatic one for Louisville — on April 3, 1974, a tornado had devastated several sections of the city, killing eight people. But barely a month later, Cannonade won the 100th Kentucky Derby before a record attendance including Princess Margaret representing the Queen of England.

At the end of the Churchill Downs spring meet, Miles Park took over on the Kentucky circuit for its traditional six weeks of racing. On Thursday, July 4, 5,344 fans turned out for the holiday night’s nine races. The feature race, with a $5,000 pot, was the “Spirit of ’76 Purse,” an “about” one-mile allowance test for older horses.

As the crowd roared, a 17-1 shot, Git, a 7-year-old gelding ridden furiously by Jesus Rosello, prevailed by a nose over Julia’s Dash … or did he? Sometime after the race was made “official,” an embarrassed Frank Muth, one of the placing judges, informed the stewards that the wrong horse had been posted as the winner – that Julia’s Dash’s nose had reached the wire first, not Git’s.

After a stewards’ hearing the next morning, Mr. Muth and his two fellow judges, Bernard “Bernie” Berns and John Francis Dugan, were each fined $100 and suspended the final week of the meeting. (Mr. Berns unsuccessfully appealed his sanction to the Kentucky State Racing Commission and went to his grave insisting that Git had won the race.)

A press release and published ruling emphasized the integrity of the veteran officials and, eventually, as the story was re-told through the years, the mistake was blamed on the rainy weather, an outdated photo-finish camera, and a printed photograph that Mr. Muth – as good a racing official as ever lived – had called for that night that, to the naked eye, bordered on an optical illusion (see photo).

Frank Muth

Replacing the departed trio of judges was a new set abruptly pressed into service: assistant racing secretary Donnie Richardson, clerk of scales Jerry Botts, and racing secretary Warren Wolf. To their chagrin (and without their agreement), in a move that today would be labeled “transparency,” their full names were announced to the next night’s crowd. Messrs. Richardson, Botts and Wolf got an immediate challenge in their new positions: In the first race, as fate would have it, there was an extremely close finish.

Understandably, the replacement judges took considerable time to study the printed photo. As the minutes wore on, the impatient bettors, mindful of the previous evening’s debacle, began to ever more loudly chant in unison: “If you can’t split ’em, dead heat ’em!  IF YOU CAN’T SPLIT ‘EM, DEAD HEAT ‘EM!   IF YOU CAN’T SPLIT ‘EM, DEAD HEAT ‘EM!!!” – until the result was finally posted on the tote board to thunderous Bronx cheer applause.

In those seemingly less-complicated times, no lawsuits were filed because of the placing judges’ mistake, not even by Git’s colorful owner, Henderson, Ky., automobile dealer George “Hoolie” Hudson, who, in later years, admitted that he more than made up the $2,000 difference in the purse redistribution with the bets he had legitimately cashed on his $37.60 “winner.” The fans’ anger may have been assuaged, too, by the wise decision of track management (led by perspicacious general manager John Battaglia) to give out thousands of passes for free admission, food, and other giveaways.

After ill-conceived decisions to try Quarter Horse racing, a winter meet in late 1974, and even a gray, dud-of-a-new-name, Commonwealth Race Course, little Miles Park closed for good the following year. But its memories have endured for anyone lucky enough to have worked there during some wonderful summers, when everybody was young and our futures were all in front of us – even on the night the judges put up the “officially” wrong numbers.

Bob Heleringer is a Louisville, Ky. attorney, former racing official (placing judge), and is currently writing a second edition of his legal textbook, “Equine Regulatory Law.”

The Courier-Journal published the mis-read photo finish

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