Kentucky Derby squabbling far from over as fighting carries over to a diminished Preakness

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As always, it took about two minutes to contest the Kentucky Derby. But the squabble over the outcome of the infamous 145th running of America’s greatest horse race may never end.

Ten days later after his horse was disqualified, Maximum Security owner Gary West has taken his ongoing tantrum to court. He filed a federal lawsuit in Kentucky on Tuesday seeking to have the result of the race overturned, his horse restored as the winner and his bank account enriched by the $1.86 million winner’s purse. The suit, which names the Kentucky racing stewards and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission as defendants, claims the process by which Maximum Security was disqualified is “unconstitutional.”

That’s just one of the reasons why the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, will be contested under a cloud and without key participants Saturday. Both Maximum Security and Derby winner-by-disqualification Country House are skipping that race, reducing it to rubble in terms of fan interest, though West has opportunistically agreed to an NBC interview during the network’s Preakness telecast. (Here’s an idea for pouty Gary: If he wants to be part of the telecast, enter the horse in the race.)

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Meanwhile, the Great Derby DQ is still the talk at racetracks everywhere, with the same lack of consensus now as there was on the first Saturday in May. That includes Churchill Downs, site of the fiasco.

There was an interesting exchange Monday morning here between Bob Baffert, king of all thoroughbred trainers, and 58-year-old journeyman jockey Jon Court, who lit the fuse on the post-race powder keg by filing the initial foul claim.

Flavien Prat on Country House, left, races against Luis Saez on Maximum Security, third from left, during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (AP)
Flavien Prat on Country House, left, races against Luis Saez on Maximum Security, third from left, during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (AP)

Baffert was in town to oversee the workout of his Derby and Preakness horse, Improbable. Court was at Churchill because he’s ridden here off and on for decades, ranking in the all-time top 15 for wins at the track. The two had a meeting of the minds that Baffert later described as “all in jest.” Others thought the conversation had a bit more edge to it.

Baffert, winner of five Derbies, has consistently stated his support for West and Maximum Security. His stance: The Derby is always a roughly run race, which everyone signs up for and expects; if you claim foul, it better be because your horse was going to win before being interfered with. Court’s mount, Long Range Toddy, was 18th before being moved to 17th after the foul claim. (It should also be noted that West is a longtime Baffert client, and that Baffert used one of West’s horses as a de facto blocker to help Justify win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes last June.)

Standing just a few feet from Baffert’s Barn 33 on the Churchill backside Monday, Court wasn’t backing down after their exchange.

“The first thing he said was, ‘You don’t file a claim in the Derby,’ ” Court recounted. “Well, I’m not the first to file a claim in the Derby. … I think we ought to initiate a race with no rules, and with 39 years experience I want to be in that race.

“The rules are there for a reason and they shouldn’t change from one race to another. … [The Derby] is roughly run, and that’s why we have officials that are in position to make rulings. The Derby is no excuse to be able to ride recklessly.”

To recap what happened on May 4: Maximum Security was on his way to a wire-to-wire Derby triumph when, rounding the far turn, the colt veered out on the wet track into the path of pursuing War of Will, ridden Tyler Gaffalione. That caused Gaffalione to check his horse’s progress sharply, thus interfering with Long Range Toddy and forcing Court to jerk his colt outward and avoid a collision.

The potential carnage, human and equine, cannot be overstated.

“I went from race riding to protecting and taking precautionary measures,” Court said. “It was a miracle that no one did come to a travesty of falling. We’re very fortunate that everyone was unscathed.”

When the race was over, Court informed an outrider that he wanted to file an objection, which he did via telephone after dismounting. Mud caking his face, Court told me immediately after his phone conversation with the stewards, “[The race] got pretty gnarly.” He’d just made history as the oldest jockey ever to ride in the Derby, but his historical footnote in that race was only just beginning.

While Court was lodging his complaint, Bill Mott was sensing an opportunity to enter the winner’s circle via the backdoor. The trainer of runner-up Country House was told by Jose Ortiz, the jockey of Tacitus, Mott’s other Derby horse, that Maximum Security interfered with the field. So Mott sent Country House jockey Florent Geroux to the phone to lodge his own foul claim.

What ensued was a 22-minute stewards review and a ruling that shook the sport — the first DQ for an in-race infraction in Derby history. For Court to play a central role in that drama is highly improbable.

Trainer Bob Baffert is seen at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2019, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP)
Trainer Bob Baffert is seen at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2019, in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP)

Court has spent most of his career toiling at a level below racing’s elite. He’s won a lot of races over nearly four decades in the saddle, but few of them in the biggest spots for the biggest purses. Despite an extensive background at Churchill, he’s ridden in just four Derbies and never finished better than eighth. He’s been replaced by higher-profile riders on several horses on their way to the Derby, part of his lot in jockey life.

But with one phone call on May 4, previously anonymous Jon Court found himself in the middle of a controversy that rages to this day.

“I think we owe the public an absolution for the Derby,” Court said. “I’m stepping up and trying to bring some vindication and be as transparent as possible. … Whether you’re Gary West or Jon Court, we’re all in this together. Yeah, his feelings are hurt, but we’re all on the same team. We’re working together for the welfare of racing.

“I don’t think we need to run and hide. We don’t need a war of opinions, but when it comes to the Derby there are rules in place.”

Saturday, Jon Court has the mount on Market King, a long shot trained by D. Wayne Lukas — a legendary 83-year-old who has put Court on many horses throughout his career. Market King was assigned 30-1 morning-line odds Wednesday at the Preakness post-position draw. Baffert’s Improbable was installed as the 5-2 favorite.

If you want a scenario that further intensifies the acrimony in the sport, here it is: Low-profile, 58-year-old Jon Court winning the Preakness after playing a key role in taking down Maximum Security, and after sparring with Baffert, would be the capper.

It’s not likely to happen — but then again, a 65-1 shot wasn’t supposed to win the Derby by disqualification. In this 2019 Triple Crown campaign, no outcome seems too bizarre.

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