Coalport is King: Louisiana Court Applies Judicial Scrutiny to Horse Race Controversy

horse_race_hippodrome_horses-1024x587Horse races represent a lot of things: money, power, competition. The outcomes of races matter a lot to those involved, and debates about those races can be pretty contentious, even getting to court. When a back-and-forth about the rightful winner of a horse race makes it to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, how does the court deal with this unique and specific area of law?

The Second Circuit had to decide which horse, “Coalport” or “Benwill”, won the Unbridled Stakes horse race at Louisiana Downs. Coalport’s owners, the Ramseys, brought a suit against the Louisiana State Racing Commission (the “Commission”) after the Louisiana Downs Stewards questioned and reversed Coalport’s win at Unbridled Stakes. Ultimately, the Board of Stewards found that Coalport had fouled Benwill and prevented Benwill from winning the race. Accordingly, Coalport was demoted to second place, and Benwill took first place. The Ramseys first appealed the Stewards’ finding to the Commission, but the Commission affirmed the decision. The Ramseys then appealed to the 26th Judicial District Court, which reversed the decision and reinstated Coalport as the race winner. In its decision, the trial court held that the Commission should have assessed the Stewards’ decision with greater scrutiny and that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Coalport fouling Benwill changed the race outcome. 

The Commission appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the Commission’s evidence showed that it was more likely than not that the foul changed the race outcome, the Commission was not too deferential to the Stewards’ decision, and the trial court did not give the Commission proper deference to determine the credibility of witnesses. The primary issue for the Second Circuit to determine was whether Coalport’s foul actually changed the outcome of the race. 

35 La. Admin. Code Pt. V, 7901 states that a horse interfering with or impeding any other horse has committed a foul and may be disqualified if the Stewards determine that the foul impacted the outcome of the race, regardless of whether the foul was accidental or intentional. Administrative decisions reviewed in courts of law are governed by La. R.S. 49:964, which provides reasons that a district court might reverse the administrative agency’s decision. Some possible reasons for reversal include a constitutional or statutory violation, the agency’s overreach of its statutory authority, unlawful procedure, other legal errors, abuse of discretion, or lack of evidence supporting the decision. Any of these reasons may support the reversal of an agency’s decision, but the court’s assessment of the agency’s decision should also defer to the agency’s own assessment of witness credibility. La. R.S. 49:964.

In Louisiana, an appellate court’s review of administrative decisions generally falls within two opposing camps: the prevailing view, which supports a de novo review, or an entirely new analysis of the administrative decision, without deference to the previous decisions; and the minority view, which supports an appellate court giving deference to the trial court’s determinations in its assessment of the trial court’s decision. 

The Second Circuit found that, under either approach above, the trial court’s decision should be affirmed. The trial court found that there was not enough evidence to support the conclusion that Coalport’s foul changed the outcome of the race. Various parts of the record supported this conclusion: the foul occurred so close to the end of the race that Coalport’s win was already very likely, as Benwill was gaining on Coalport but not enough to overtake first position. The Second Circuit further determined that the Commission used the incorrect standard of review and did not assess the Stewards’ decision with enough scrutiny. Accordingly, because the Commission used the wrong standard of review, the trial and appellate courts could not give a lot of credit to the Commission’s decisions and analyses. Ultimately, the Second Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to reinstate Coalport as the winner of the Unbridled Stakes horse race. 

Every matter before the court, even uniquely special controversies about horse races, must be treated with the proper standard of review. No matter your case, complaint or controversy, an awareness of the court’s obligations of review is key to presenting your claim well and increasing your chances of a favorable outcome. 

Additional Sources: Ramsey v. Louisiana State Racing Commission 

Written By Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Appellate Standard of Review: Appellate Court Outlines Standard of Review for Damage Awards

Contact Information