By the letter of the rule, the decision might have been right. Technically, the race stewards might have been justified for what they did.
It still stinks. It cloaks the Kentucky Derby in an indelible shame, what happened Saturday in the 145th running of perhaps America’s most historic sporting event.
The disqualification of rightful winner Maximum Security that turned Country House into the most unqualified major champion in thoroughbred history — it should never have happened. Especially not in this race.
The Derby’s much-too-crowded 20-horse field (it was 19 on Saturday after a scratch) assures unusually congested traffic and close quarters as riders literally jockey for position. It is a race unlike any other. And yet in a century and a half this was the first time a winner has ever been taken down on race day for something that occurred on the track. (The only other DQ, of Dancer’s Image in 1968, came after the fact due to a drug violation.)
Any “first” in the Kentucky Derby carries the heft of history. Ulysses S. Grant was president when Churchill Downs hosted the first one. The Derby came before the first World Series. It predates the first Masters golf tournament by 60 years. It is the only horse race much of America watches.
It is the sport’s biggest possible stage for an embarrassment of equal size.
Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, said Monday he would appeal to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to declare his horse the rightful winner, but the rules do not even allow appeals so his chances are those of a mule winning the Derby. He could go above the sport and try federal court, but anything from here might be moot.
The damage is done.
“No one ever calls an objection in the Derby,” as Hall of Fame trainer and five-time Derby winner Bob Baffert told SI.com. “It’s always a roughly run race. Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby. I can see by the book why they did it. But sometimes you’ve got to take your ass kickings with dignity.”
Maximum Security was by far the strongest horse in the field Saturday, staking his claim as the best 3-year-old in the country. He drifted right and impeded (or “bothered,” in racing parlance) other horses when spooked by the crowd’s roar as the field entered the homestretch. But almost certainly would have won in any case. Notably, Country House, the horse given the win, was barely if at all affected by Maximum Security’s movement.
“I felt terrible that I had to apologize for winning the Kentucky Derby,” admitted Country House trainer Bill Mott.
International racing rules state a horse may only be disqualified if his actions affect the outcome. Only in the United States and Canada can a horse out front and in charge be DQ’d in the manner Maximum Security was.
The action that got Saturday’s winner taken down occurs throughout a race, any race, especially as horses are making the first turn. It is seldom called then and never called in the final stretch. Well, at least never before in the century and a half of the Derby.
Fouls could be called on just about every play in the NBA. Officials are especially unlikely to make a very marginal or ticky-tack call late in a game to affect who wins a championship. That is what happened at Churchill Downs.
Everything about the ruling smells.
The race stewards did not illuminate the “Inquiry” light on the scoreboard as the veering took place or soon after, strongly suggesting they initially did not see that any equine crime had occurred. Their 22-minute deliberation commenced only after two jockeys, those aboard Long Range Toddy and Country House, claimed.
Notably, the jockey aboard War of Will, the horse first and most affected by Maximum Security’s movement, did not protest.
Later the stewards issued a statement but refused to take questions from the media. They went into hiding. It was unheard of. West and trainer Jason Servis asked to meet with the stewards but were denied.
“We were stunned, shocked and in total and complete disbelief,” West said. “And [the stewards have] been about as nontransparent about this whole thing as anything I’ve ever seen my in life.”
Maximum Security was not faultless here. He did drift right and impede. War of Will deftly avoided a collision that could have tangled legs and caused a catastrophe on the too crowded track. (Some good could come of this if Churchill Downs rethinks and limits its Derby field to 14).
Bottom line? Ask yourself two questions. Did Maximum Security’s movement from the lead position prevent another horse from overtaking him? No. Not on this day, when the fastest horse on the track was evident. And was this the very first time in 145 years that the winner veered or impeded another horse along the way? Of course not.
The race result should have stood, what happened should have been a non-call, and the roses should have been on Maximum Security’s neck.
Instead, the stewards who altered history become a piece of sports infamy, and the hallowed Kentucky Derby is stained.