LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Contrary to the uninformed opinion of the Know-It-All-In-Chief, the racing stewards at Churchill Downs made the right call in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
There was no collusion involved in Country House controversially winning the Derby, President Trump. But there was obstruction. Which is why the momentous decision to disqualify Maximum Security was 100 percent right.
This is what the president tweeted Sunday morning: “The Kentucky Derby decision was not a good one. It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch. Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby - not even close!”
When the president is tweeting about thoroughbred racing, you know the sport has burst out of its normal, narrow niche. The Derby can do that for racing. A controversial Derby can absolutely do that for racing.
What Trump termed “political correctness” was actually racing correctness. When Derby leader Maximum Security suddenly swerved to his right going around the far turn and drastically impeded both War of Will and Long Range Toddy, he committed a foul that — even in the Kentucky Derby — needed to be called.
“I really believe the call that was made yesterday shows the integrity of the stewards,” said Country House trainer Bill Mott, who won his first Derby in a bizarre and slightly unsatisfying fashion. “… It’s such a critical point in the race. When you reach the quarter pole, there’s no time to put the brakes on and go again.”
In other words, the chances of the impeded horses were over right there. That’s a foul.
“I absolutely, positively believe they made the right decision,” said Mark Casse, trainer of War of Will, Sunday morning outside his Churchill barn. “They had to take him down. We have rules and regulations. The only reason it took as long as it did was because it’s the Kentucky Derby. If it was the last race [on the card Saturday] it would have taken two minutes.”
Instead, it took 22. That was one of three areas in which the stewards erred.
Commend the three of them for making the decision. Their opinion was unanimous, but that certainly didn’t make it easy. In 144 previous runnings of America’s signature horse race, the winner had never been taken down for a racing foul. To do this — to rewrite just made history and to outrage the thousands of bettors who established Maximum Security as the 9-2 second choice — took some fortitude.
But fortitude shouldn’t take forever. Leaving all involved parties — owners, trainers, jockeys, bettors — hanging for that much time was unfortunate to the point of being unfair. Thoroughness is good, and this warranted a thorough review — but it didn’t take many looks at the video to see a clear foul committed by Maximum Security.
“He put other horses and people’s lives in jeopardy,” Casse said, noting that if his horse wasn’t nimbly athletic and coolly ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, he would have gone down and likely created a horrific, multi-horse spill. “If our horse fell, it would have been disastrous.”
Taking 22 minutes to make the call was actually the second error by the stewards. Their first mistake was not lighting up the “INQUIRY” sign on the tote board immediately after the race, thus signaling the public that the race was under review.
Chief steward Barbara Borden read a statement Saturday night that said two jockeys, Flavien Prat of Country House and Jon Court of Long Range Toddy, made foul claims after the race. In interviews at Churchill on Sunday morning, it seemed that Court spoke up first, communicating his foul claim to outriders on the track, before he had even dismounted his colt. That was passed along to the stewards.
Mott said he received information about how rough the trip was from the jockey of his other horse in the race, Jose Ortiz.
“He got off Tacitus and said there was a lot of bumping, they’ve got to take [Maximum Security] down,” Mott related. “In his view it was a no-brainer.”
After talking to Ortiz, Mott encouraged Prat to register his foul claim. He got on the trackside landline phone after Court.
“I sent Flavien to the phone,” Mott said. “I said, ‘You need to get in there.’ ”
That process took several minutes. The inquiry light had come on by then, but it wasn’t as fast as it should have been.
“The inquiry sign should have probably gone up as soon as they hit the wire,” Casse said. “I was kind of surprised it didn’t go up.”
That begged the question of whether the stewards would have let the race result stand without the foul claims from the jocks. Churchill Downs media relations director Darren Rogers said the stewards have multiple camera angles at their disposal for every race and always review them, so the stewards almost certainly already had been looking at what happened on the far turn. Perhaps they would have started the inquiry on their own if the jockeys hadn’t done it first.
Still, the stewards were both slow on the draw and slow on the resolution.
Their third error was issuing a 107-word statement on the single biggest steward call in American horse racing history without taking any questions or offering any explanations. People in the sport are often whiny about the lack of mainstream attention horse racing gets — and yet they often refuse to help casual fans understand the inner workings of the sport.
Answering a few questions to further explain a ruling many millions of people didn’t fully understand — including the President of the United States — would seem like smart business and smart P.R. Instead, the stewards treated this like any other race foul in their narrow niche, then hid behind a statement.
Those were really the only human errors involved in the entire imbroglio. Nobody in the sport was criticizing jockey Luis Saez, who rode Maximum Security, for his mount veering into trouble.
“I very strongly believe it was the horse,” Mott said. “Why? I don’t know. Sometimes the horses move sideways. … He probably caught Luis off-guard. He’s an aggressive guy, but I don’t think he’s a careless rider. You’re going 35, 40 miles an hour at that point, and it all happens in two or three strides.”
Saez said immediately after the race that Maximum Security was spooked rolling through the turn, and that lines up with an Only in the Derby phenomenon riders have experienced: the so-called “wall of sound” coming into the Churchill stretch.
With 150,000 people on the property, the Derby noise is unlike the noise for any other race at any other track. And the brunt of it hits the lead horses as they come off the final turn in front of the packed grandstand.
Maximum Security is an aggressive and high-strung horse by nature, known to do some kicking and biting around the barn. Last week his trainer, Jason Servis, expressed relief that the colt “behaved himself” on his first training visit to the track Wednesday morning.
The misbehavior would come three days later, at a much worse time.
Servis wasn’t around Churchill on Sunday morning to talk about winning and then losing the Derby in the course of 22 awkward minutes. He texted one reporter that he was heading to Lexington, Kentucky. Owner Gary West said he was saving his commentary on the ruling for an appearance on The Today Show on NBC Monday morning.
It seems likely that the Maximum Security camp will at the very least appeal this ruling to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, if not go to court. This may not be over for a while.
Meanwhile, Mott finds himself going from dreaming of a big Belmont Stakes showing in the first seconds after the Derby ended to being coerced into a Preakness run for Country House. The 65-year-old has only run two horses in the Preakness, and none since 2008. The middle leg of the Triple Crown is usually one he skips — but that isn’t really an option now.
“You get shamed into it,” Mott said. “If you don’t, it’s ‘You got no balls,’ and ‘What’s wrong with the horse?’ Having the Derby winner, you’re pretty much forced to go on to the Preakness.”
Perhaps Maximum Security will be there waiting for Country House. It sounds like War of Will’s connections are plenty willing to show up in Baltimore in two weeks. Bob Baffert almost certainly will have one or more of his three Derby runners pointed for that race.
Perhaps we can re-convene this Derby at Pimlico and hope for a cleanly run race. But unless an appeal or a lawsuit alter the outcome, nothing that happens on the third Saturday in May is going to change what happened on the first Saturday in May.
History was made. And it won’t soon be forgotten.
“This Kentucky Derby will be talked about a long time,” said Mott, putting in the same category as the 1957 Derby when legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and prematurely stood up in the irons aboard Gallant Man, costing him the race. “It’s one of those things that’s not going to go away.”
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