On appeal from the New Jersey Racing Commission.
Milmed and Gaulkin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Milmed, P.J.A.D.
This appeal brings up for review the propriety of two decisions of the New Jersey Racing Commission (Commission), viz.: (1) a ruling of August 11, 1981 reversing "the ruling of the judges at the Meadowlands Racetrack suspending driver John Kopas for a period of five days for violation of N.J.[A].C. 13:71-20.6A.8" and reversing "the disqualification of the horse 'Savilla Lobell' following the running of the 6th Race on July 8, 1981," and (2) the denial of a request by appellants Charles H. Pitts, John Schmidt and Jerry Jenkins, for an opportunity to participate in a hearing before the Commission. From our review of the record submitted on the appeal it is clear that the Commission's decisions were arbitrary and unreasonable, and that appellants were deprived of basic rights afforded them by the Administrative Procedure Act, L. 1968, c. 410, as amended and supplemented, N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 et seq. We, accordingly, reverse and remand for a full plenary hearing upon proper notice, all as mandated by that legislation for a "contested case."
The essential facts may briefly be summarized. On July 8, 1981 harness racing was conducted at the Meadowlands Racetrack. At the conclusion of the sixth race, referred to as the Sweetheart Pace, Benny Webster, the driver of the No. 6 horse,
Belanda Hanover, which finished ninth, filed an objection with the judges at the track claiming interference by John Kopas, the driver of the No. 4 horse, Savilla Lobell, which finished first. After viewing a videotape of the race, the three judges, by a unanimous Ruling No. 339A, dated July 9, 1981, notified Kopas that they were suspending him from driving for five days, from July 14 through July 18, "for the following reason":
As the horses were coming down the stretch in the sixth race on July 8, 1981, your horse # 4, Savilla Lobell, bore in and your bike struck the rear legs of the # 6, Belanda Hanover, causing her to go off-stride. . . .
Included in the ruling was the judges' decision that the No. 4 horse, Savilla Lobell, which had "finished 1st," was "placed 10th for interference." The judges concluded the ruling with a reference to N.J.A.C. 13:71-20.6(a)8, which reads:
Although a leading horse is entitled to any part of the track except after selecting his position in the home stretch, neither the driver [of] the first horse nor any other driver in the race shall [c]ommit any act which [will] impede the progress of another horse or cause him to "break."
The decision of the judges was upheld by the State Steward at the Meadowlands. His Ruling No. 342A, also issued July 9, 1981, is addressed to Surge Stable, Inc., the owner of Savilla Lobell. It reads:
After a hearing before the State Steward at The Meadowlands, at which time Brian Webster and Raymond Bednarz, owners of the Surge Stable were present and the photo patrol film of the sixth race of July 8, 1981 was reviewed several times, the disqualification of the filly Savilla Lobell as ordered by the Judges at The Meadowlands in ruling 339A, dated July 9, 1981, is hereby upheld. N.J.[A.]C. Rule 13:71-20.6(a)8.
John Kopas and Surge Stables, Inc. appealed to the Commission. On Monday, July 20, 1981, the Executive Director of the Commission sent notices to the owners of the horses that finished first through sixth advising them as follows:
Appeal of Surge Stable re disqualification of "Savilla Lobell", sixth race July 8, 1981 will be held [Meadowlands] Race ...