Inside the most controversial and surreal Kentucky Derby ever
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Everyone was standing around on the muddy ooze of the Churchill Downs racetrack, and nothing was happening. The adrenaline rush of the Kentucky Derby had given way to a surreal limbo.
The trainers, jockeys and owners connected to two racehorses had nothing to do. Stable hands cooled down the colts, walking them in circles, waiting for news. A grandstand packed with boozed and confused fans buzzed with uncertainty.
These were the longest, strangest minutes in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby. The first-ever racing disqualification of a Derby winner was being deliberated in a room seven floors above the track.
Maximum Security had generated maximum controversy.
The aftermath of this race usually unfolds like clockwork, and the mechanisms were all in place. The winner’s circle beckoned, the gold trophy was sitting there, the governor of Kentucky was standing by to award it, and the blanket of roses was prepared to be draped across the shoulders of the champion.
But which horse was it? Favorite Maximum Security or 65-to-1 longshot Country House?
Maximum Security had reached the wire first, but as his connections and thousands of bettors began to rejoice, an ominous message came over the track public address system: “The result of the race is unofficial. Hold all tickets.”
A rider’s objection had been filed with the racing stewards. In many instances, an inquiry is started by the stewards themselves — but they did not initiate one in this instance. This one was started by jockeys Flavien Prat of Country House and Jon Court of Long Range Toddy.
They claimed that Maximum Security interfered with horses as they were rounding the far turn. “It got pretty gnarly,” said Long Range Toddy jockey Jon Court, and replays confirmed his assessment. Both Court and War of Will rider Tyler Gaffalione had to check up sharply when Maximum Security drifted out into their path, costing them any chance to be in the mix down the stretch.
Given the controversies about animal safety that have dogged the sport since a spate of fatal breakdowns in California last winter, Gaffalione might actually have saved horse racing from a truly awful day. His quick reaction aboard War of Will prevented a possible spill that may have taken out much of the 19-horse field.
So some of the affected riders got on the trackside phone with the stewards to give their account of what happened. And then the wait began.
While the stewards deliberated, poring over video of the race, the contingents of Maximum Security and Country House were left standing in the mud, surrounded by media members, peeking at replays on the video boards, wondering whose dream was achieved and who was about to go home angry.
The minutes dragged on, 22 in all, and Jason Servis began to get a bad feeling. This was taking too long.
“That can’t be good for me,” said the trainer of Maximum Security.
About 25 feet away, Country House trainer Bill Mott knew what should happen but wasn’t sure it would happen. Basically, this was like a football officiating call on the deciding play of the Super Bowl: Do they have the guts to make it when the outcome will decide the biggest race on American soil?
“They don’t take many horses down in the Kentucky Derby,” Mott said as he waited. “If it was a maiden $10,000 race on a Thursday, it’s a no-brainer. There were two horses taken out. … They have a duty to do the right thing. I hope they do.”In fact, they never take down the winner of the Kentucky Derby. There was a DQ in 1968, but not due to anything that happened in the race. Dancer’s Image was taken down three days after the race due to a drug violation. This was a first.
The ruling that took away the win
The news initially was relayed to everyone without a sound. The audio announcement came a few moments later.
The video board displaying the results simply changed — Country House moved to the top, and Maximum Security’s name disappeared. The uncertain grandstand buzz transformed into gasps, groans and roars. And then boos.
The Derby winner had been DQ’d.
It was a unanimous decision by the three stewards — Butch Becraft, Tyler Picklesimer and chief steward Barbara Borden. It appeared to be the correct decision. It also was a hugely controversial decision.
The stewards took no questions from reporters Saturday night, a lack-of-accountability page taken out of the officiating playbook of mainstream sports. In contrast, the trainer who had his guts ripped out answered all questions after the ruling.
“It’s tough,” Servis said, appearing surprisingly serene before walking into a somber, shell-shocked Maximum Security owner’s box.
“Right now I’m kind of OK,” Servis said. “I’m sure tomorrow I might not be.”
Sunday may bring new plot twists. An appeal could be filed to the Kentucky Horse Racing Board, and a legal challenge certainly wouldn’t seem far-fetched in this situation.
The result of this Kentucky Derby may still be in doubt for quite some time.
The conflicting emotions were palpable for Country House’s connections. It was a feel-good story on several levels, but those were overshadowed by the way they won the race.
Mott, a 65-year-old who once was the youngest trainer ever inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, finally had his first Derby. He’d been 0-for-8 in the race before Saturday when he saddled two colts. Tacitus was considered by far his best shot, being sent off at 5-1 odds. Country House was almost a throw-in, and his 65-1 odds were the second-longest for the winner in Derby history.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mott said. “I’d be lying if I said it was any different. You always want to win with a clean trip and have everybody recognize the horse … for the great athlete he is. I think, due to the disqualification, some of that is diminished. But this is horse racing.
“The stewards had a very, very difficult decision. I mean, I’m glad I wasn’t in their shoes. … But with that being said, I’m damn glad they put our number up. We showed up. We showed up in a big way.”
Prat, the winning jockey, traveled an unbelievable path to the winner’s circle. He seemingly had seen his best chance to win this race go up in smoke when he made a dubious decision in March to give up the mount on Omaha Beach and instead ride Galilean in the Rebel Stakes in Arkansas. Omaha Beach blossomed into the pre-race favorite while being ridden by Mike Smith, and Prat went to the remainder bin to pick up the ride on Country House.
Then Omaha Beach scratched on Wednesday due to a breathing issue — which likely had a major impact on how this race was run. Prat, meanwhile, was onboard an afterthought horse he’d never ridden before Saturday.
For Saez, rider of Maximum Security, the result was brutal. For half the race, he was perfect.
Saez took the naturally speedy colt to the lead in quick fractions, going through the first quarter-mile in 22.31 seconds and the half-mile in 46.62. That was troublesomely fast, but Saez then expertly slowed the pace at the front end in the third quarter-mile, strolling along in 25.88 seconds.
The field was bunched behind him.
“Like a kid’s soccer game,” said trainer Bob Baffert.
Behind Maximum Security, Gaffalione was forced to put a choke hold on War of Will. He was stuck along the rail with a horse ready to roll, but Saez kept him bottled up. That was expert race riding.
Finally, Gaffalione got a sliver of daylight between Maximum Security and Long Range Toddy on the far turn. As he started to move through that hole, Maximum Security veered out enough to stop War of Will — and then Long Range Toddy — in their tracks.
“I really thought I was going to win the Derby,” Gaffalione said. “I checked pretty hard when the seven [Maximum Security] came out as far as he did.”
Said Long Range Toddy trainer Steve Asmussen: “He was in a good position and then, as we know, the race got real rough.”
Booing the winner
When they finally got Country House into the winner’s circle, the boos came down harder than the rain that coated Louisville much of the day Saturday. Some of that might have been directed at lightning-rod governor Matt Bevin, but undoubtedly most of it came from outraged fans (and many bettors) who didn’t want to see Maximum Security taken down and the Kentucky Derby decided on a replay review.
So many American sports are shrouded in officiating controversies. The Derby has been blessedly free of any such drama — a two-minute rush with a defined winner and little left to rules interpretation.
Not anymore. Now it’s just like every other sport with an officiating controversy, dogged by claims of corruption and bitter recrimination.
As Country House received his roses, a groom led Maximum Security the other way and began the long, muddy walk back to the barn. The tumult carried on behind him. He’s a racing immortal for all the wrong reasons now, after a result unlike anything we’ve seen in the 144 previous runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
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