LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Perhaps the most amazing part of horse racing’s decline into relative obscurity among major American sports is that it manages to still pack 150,000 people into Churchill Downs every year for the world’s biggest party on the first Saturday in May. It happens rain or shine, no matter how much they jack up ticket prices, regardless of how many $15 mint juleps it takes to get a comfortable buzz.
And it only grows like that year after year apart from the sport’s typical sinkage for one reason — the Kentucky Derby is special.
It’s less special today.
Every now and then, the best horse in the Derby doesn’t win. It should never be robbed.
The history books will say that long shot Country House was the 145th Kentucky Derby winner on Saturday. But anyone who watched and remembers the race years from now will know that Country House was little more than the recipient of an egregious decision by the racing stewards at Churchill Downs, who disqualified the horse that finished under the wire first and was much the best running 1-1/4 miles around the famed oval.
That horse was Maximum Security, and now he’s the poster boy of the biggest controversy in the history of American horse racing — an outcome horse racing didn’t need amidst a months-long public relations debacle resulting from 23 horse fatalities in California over the winter, and, frankly, wasn’t warranted under the circumstances of the race.
Then, about 2 1/2 hours after the race, the three people who made that decision didn’t even bother to defend it. Instead, they chose the gutless route by reading a prepared statement in the media center at Churchill Downs and refusing to answer questions about the biggest overturned result in the history of the sport.
“They’ll be talking about the result of this race from now until they run the next Kentucky Derby and the next 10 Kentucky Derbys and the next 20 Kentucky Derbys,” said Bill Mott, the trainer of Country House. “There’s always a lot of controversy in this sport, and we’re probably going to be involved in it from now on, but you know, I’m going to take it.”
Don’t blame Mott for thinking that justice was done by taking down Maximum Security and placing him 17th due to an incident halfway around the final turn that compromised the chances of the two horses who were racing between Maximum Security and Country House. Mott, like every trainer who has been successful in this business, has been on both sides of these situations dozens of times. For him, it’s just part of the business.
But there’s a reason the Derby, which is always a roughly run race with plenty of bumping and jostling throughout, has never had a winner disqualified due to interference: Unless the foul was egregious enough to clearly change the result, the horse that finished first under the wire should stand.
That standard wasn’t met on Saturday. Not by a wide margin.
PAYOUTS: Kentucky Derby payouts after Country House's shocking victory
STUNNER: Country House wins Kentucky Derby after Maximum Security is disqualified
OBJECTION: What's an objection? Here's what happened with Country House and Maximum Security
REFUNDS: TwinSpires will refund some win bets on Maximum Security
Look, there’s no doubt that a few seconds before Maximum Security hit the quarter pole on Saturday, he veered out to the right a bit, perhaps responding to crowd noise. In doing so, he forced War of Will racing next to him to swing wide, which in turn caused Long Range Toddy to check up to avoid a collision.
You can argue, as Mott did, that both Long Range Toddy and War of Will lost momentum and a chance to finish in the top three based on that interference. He may be right.
But the Kentucky Derby, with 20 jockeys fighting for every inch of space, is rarely run without complaints. Racing luck was, is and always will be part of the story.
What Churchill’s three racing referees — called “stewards” — had to figure out was whether that incident was egregious enough to warrant changing the result. And, perhaps in a sense, they had to determine if they should do it in the Kentucky Derby, given the fact that they were imposing a judgment call on the one race watched and bet on by millions.
Flavien Prat, jockey of Country House, celebrates after winning the Kentucky Derby. (Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)
“We had a lengthy review of the race, we interviewed affected riders and we determined the 7 horse (Maximum Security) drifted out and impacted the progress of No. 1 (War of Will), in turn interfering with the 18 (Long Range Todd) and 21 (Bodexpress),” Chief State Steward Barbara Borden said. “Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference, and therefore we unanimously determined to disqualify No. 7 and place him behind No. 18.”
Notice who wasn’t affected by the incident, according to the stewards? Country House. He was just a bystander, and frankly, one who had his chance to pass Maximum Security in the stretch and instead fell two lengths behind at the wire.
In other words, stewards disqualified the best horse over an incident that impacted two also-rans while giving the victory to another horse who was never going to win on his own. How does that make sense?
“I don’t think it changed the outcome of the race,” said Jason Servis, the trainer of Maximum Security. “It’s tough. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it will.”
Unless you had a ticket on Country House at 65-to-1, making him the second-biggest long shot to ever win the Derby, what happened Saturday was nothing to celebrate. If anything, it only highlighted the notion that horse racing is a sport operating without a centralized regulating body and an embarrassing lack of transparency. And it brings up questions like this: Would these three people have made the same decision if Maximum Security was trained by a star like Bob Baffert and not a relative no-name like Jason Servis? Servis has been dogged by whispers from inside the industry that an uptick in winning percentage the last two years was the result of something other than his training methods.
“People are talking a lot of (expletive),” Servis told Horse Racing Nation last summer amidst a big hot streak, “and I’m really not happy about it.”
Did that factor into the thinking of the stewards? Who knows. They didn’t bother answering any questions, so for now, millions of Americans who had an interest in the race are left with little more than a few sentences on a sheet of paper about a decision with major ramifications that wasn’t anywhere close to an open-and-shut case.
It’s bad enough that a large segment of the general public thinks horse racing is a sport rife with animal cruelty, trainers trying to cheat drug tests and racetracks that are squeezing bettors by taking between 15 and 24 percent of every dollar bet for the house.
Now, even the sport’s showcase event can’t avoid contributing to horse racing’s woes.
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