LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A large portion of the crowd booed when the numbers appeared on the tote board, and a group of veteran reporters in the media room underneath the Churchill Downs grandstand gasped.
The connections of one horse shrieked in jubilation, while the connections of another didn’t quite know what to do.
In the weird and wacky 145-year-old history of the Kentucky Derby, this was something new.
The stewards, or racing officials who enforce the rules and regulations at racetracks, decided to disqualify Maximum Security, the clear winner of the race, in favor of runner-up Country House, marking the first time in the history of the Kentucky Derby that the winner was disqualified for an in-race foul.
The stewards disqualified Maximum Security from first place for drifting into the path of War of Will, who in turn had to alter course and affected several other horses. Maximum Security was dropped to 17th place behind Long Range Toddy, who it was determined had been affected by the dustup.
To understand the significance of this event, you have to understand just what was at stake. In a smaller race with lower-level horses, this sort of decision would have been made in minutes.
But in the Kentucky Derby — the biggest wagering race in North America and one of the most well-known races in the world — the stakes were incredibly high.
The decision had to be correct, which is why the stewards pored over several angles on their screens for 22 minutes before they issued their verdict.
More than $6.2 million had been placed on Maximum Security to win, and winning the Kentucky Derby has extreme significance: A Kentucky Derby-winning colt immediately shoots up in value for prospective breeders. Not to mention there was a $3 million purse at stake.
There’s a reason the Derby had never had a winner taken down for race riding — the technical name for the foul — in its history. The stakes are just too high. The only other disqualification in the race’s history occurred after the fact, when Dancer’s Image was disqualified for failing a drug test in 1968.
Surprisingly, there have been few objections in the history of the Kentucky Derby. The jockey is the one who makes the objection if he or she has an issue with a ride — and in this case, the jockeys of Country House and Long Range Toddy both placed objections against Maximum Security. (The stewards can also initiate an objection but did not in this case and didn’t explain why.)
Before Saturday, there had been only five foul claims in the history of the Derby, with the last coming in 2001. Four of them were not sustained, and only an objection between the fourth- and fifth-place horses in 1984 was upheld.
There will likely be arguments for years about whether Maximum Security’s DQ was the correct decision. The stewards didn’t exactly smother the flames, either, when they elected not to take questions, instead issuing only a statement to the media later Saturday night.
“The riders of the 18 [Long Range Toddy] and 20 [Country House] … lodged objections against the 7 [Maximum Security], the winner, due to interference turning for home, leaving the 1/4 pole. We had a lengthy review of the race,” said chief steward Barbara Borden. “We interviewed affected riders. We determined that the 7 horse drifted out and impacted the progress of 1 [War of Will], in turn interfering with the 18 and 21 [Bodexpress]. Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify No. 7 and place him behind the 18 … the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”
To break it down for the casual race fan: Maximum Security affected the outcome of the race when he veered directly into the path of War of Will as they came around the final turn. The crowd typically roars when the horses come down the stretch, which is one possible explanation for the horse’s unusual movement.
Because Maximum Security unexpectedly shot across several “lanes,” it took War of Will’s rider by surprise and could have been a major safety issue because War of Will’s jockey had little time to react.
“I thought I never put anybody in danger,” Maximum Security’s jockey, Luis Saez, said. “My horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little.”
War of Will was actually hit by Maximum Security’s hind legs, and it appeared to be a stroke of luck that they didn’t both go down in a tangle of limbs. However, it caused a chain reaction when War of Will then veered into the path of other horses while trying to avoid disaster.
The official Kentucky Derby chart, which explains what happened to every horse in the race, stated: “Maximum Security … veered out sharply, forcing War of Will out into Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress nearing the five-sixteenths pole.”
There are questions, of course. Did a worthy winner deserve to place 17th when some of the horses affected likely had no chance to win? And did the new winner deserve to get moved up when he couldn’t pass the winner despite having a relatively clean trip?
Tell that to the connections who are left to wonder “what if?”
“I really thought I was going to win the Derby,” War of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, said. “I checked pretty hard when [Maximum Security] came out as far as he did.”
Added Long Range Toddy’s jockey, Jon Court: “I had to stop very abruptly.”
Country House’s trainer, Bill Mott, said they’ll be talking about this for years.
A little bumping is to be expected, especially in the 20-horse race, the biggest field of any North American thoroughbred race. (Saturday’s Derby featured only 19 horses due to two scratches.) But, as Mott explained, directly affecting the outcome of other horses is what led to the disqualification, even if the winner himself wasn’t a part of it.
“There were two horses in the race that lost all chance to win a Kentucky Derby, and they were in a position at the time to hit the board. And people bet on these races,” Mott said. “There’s millions of dollars that are bet. And there are some people that bet on the two horses that got bothered, and they had no chance to get a placing. …
“I know the stewards had a very, very difficult decision. I mean, I’m glad I wasn’t in their shoes. I’m glad I didn’t have to make the decision in front of over 100,000 people and the millions of people that are watching this on TV and around the world.”
The controversial ending comes after several months of the sport finding itself in the public eye due to a series of horse accidents and deaths at Santa Anita Park in California. And don’t expect the Derby controversy to go away any time soon, either. According to the Associated Press, Gary West, who owns Maximum Security with his wife, Mary, indicated they might pursue an appeal. The connections of Dancer’s Image also appealed the decision in 1968, and it was dragged through the courts for four years to no avail.
Whatever the outcome this time, this will certainly go down as one of the weirder chapters in the history of this race.
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