Kentucky stewards made a controversial decision after the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby…
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
In context of how the rules of racing are written in Kentucky, the stewards made the only possible call in their disqualification of Maximum Security from first to 17th. But was it the right call?
First, the applicable rule defining fouls during a race reads as follows: “If a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause the same result, this action shall be deemed a foul. […] If in the opinion of the stewards a foul alters the finish of a race, an offending horse may be disqualified by the stewards.”
There can be no doubt at this point, after multiple photographs and slow-motion videos of the race have been circulated, that Maximum Security swerved in the far turn. Still, many have questioned the efficacy of the stewards' decision based on the idea that it is possible the horse shied away from the noise of the crowd, and since jockey Luis Saez did not appear to be at fault.
However, Kentucky regulations allow for the fault to be placed entirely on Maximum Security for swerving while still giving stewards latitude to make the disqualification.
In her statement to the media after the final race at Churchill Downs, chief steward Barbara Borden said, “We determined that the 7 horse (Maximum Security) drifted out and impacted the progress of Number 1 (War of Will), in turn, interfering with the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and 21 (Bodexpress). Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference.”
Based on that analysis, Maximum Security's foul did alter the finish of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, so the stewards parlayed their explanation into validating a disqualification, the first racing-related DQ of the winner in Derby history.
Even though the stewards followed the letter of Kentucky's regulations in their decision, there are several questions left unanswered.
Exactly which riders did or did not claim foul?
On-track and on the NBC telecast, the original announcement was that the claim of foul was filed by jockey Flavien Prat, aboard second-place finisher Country House. His horse may have been bumped as a result of Maximum Security's action, but it was not particularly severe.
“He bothered us slightly,” Country House's trainer Bill Mott said of Maximum Security, adding that he didn't believe Saez was directly at fault for the infraction. “He bothered the other two horses dramatically.”
Two hours after the stewards handed down their final decision, their statement shed light on the fact that another jockey, Jon Court, also filed an official claim of foul. Court was aboard Long Range Toddy, just outside of War of Will, and was definitely negatively impacted by the foul. Had this rider's claim of foul been announced sooner, it might have saved the sport a little bit of grief.
One jockey who did not file a claim of foul was Tyler Gaffalione, aboard the worst-affected War of Will. His trainer Mark Casse explained that decision on Sunday morning:
“I didn't really realize what happened,” said Casse. “Tyler came back and said 'I almost went down' and I said to him 'It's not worth it. We were (eighth).' If we had finished fourth or third or second, we would have been claiming foul in an instant.
“Was it unfortunate? Absolutely. But you realize… if I claim foul, it ruins the biggest accomplishment in (Servis') life and the only thing that's going to do is move me up to sixth. Would you claim foul? No. Should Tyler have claimed foul? No. I stand by that.”
Why didn't the stewards post the inquiry sign?
Since stewards declined to answer questions after giving their statement to the media, this query remains unanswered at the moment.
On Sunday, Kentucky Horse Racing Commission executive director Marc Guilfoil defended the stewards' decision to disqualify Maximum Security to the Blood-Horse. In addition, Guilfoil suggested that stewards may not have been required to post an inquiry and confirmed that the inquiry sign was never lit.
If the Kentucky Derby is “always” a roughly-run event, why was this year so different that we saw the disqualification of the winner?
With a 20-horse field, there are bound to be any number of horses which have their paths impeded or get bumped in the Kentucky Derby. This year's claim and subsequent upholding of “foul” could be a factor of many things, but as several prominent trainers have explained, the decision would have come much quicker than the 22 minutes in took after the Derby had this been a regular race on a Wednesday.
“In my opinion, I think they made the right call,” Mott said in the post-race press conference. “And I will try to look at it from an unbiased point of view. I know they looked at it for a long, long time. And I'm sure that they didn't want to do it; but, as I said before, if it was an ordinary race on a Wednesday, I think they definitely would have taken the winner down.”
Is there a chance that the added pressure of the recent equine fatalities at Santa Anita and Keeneland and greater emphasis on safety played a role in the stewards' decision? Of course, we would have to be oblivious to say those factors weren't possibly on the stewards' minds during those 22 minutes.
“No one ever calls an objection in the Derby,” trainer Bob Baffert told Sports Illustrated. “It's always a roughly run race. Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby. I can see by the book why they did it. But sometimes you've got to take your ass-kickings with dignity.”
If the foul didn't affect Country House, why was he declared the winner?
The answer to this question goes back to the way Kentucky's racing rules are written. Country House's second-place finish made him the luckiest horse in the bunch when Maximum Security's disqualification elevated him to the Kentucky Derby winner.
Had Maximum Security not committed a foul, it is possible that Country House could have won the race if, perhaps, War of Will had engaged Maximum Security and the Mott trainee had pounced late. Of course, it is also possible that, had the foul not occurred, another horse might have crossed the wire in first place, like War of Will or Long Range Toddy, or that Maximum Security might have won anyway.
Did Maximum Security's foul really affect the outcome of the race?
This is the crux of most naysayers' argument with the disqualification. The suggestion is that despite his foul, Maximum Security proved himself the best horse in the race by crossing the wire first.
The foul committed by Maximum Security was extremely dangerous. There were two strides during which War of Will's front leg was between the two hind legs of Maximum Security, and the fact that neither horse fell or was seriously injured is almost unbelievable. If War of Will had fallen, directly in the path of at least 15 other rivals, it is conceivable that he and jockey Tyler Gaffalione could have caused other horses and their riders to fall as well.
Had War of Will not stayed on his feet, the stewards' decision to disqualify Maximum Security would have seemed like a no-brainer. Are we so oblivious in 2019 that we require a catastrophe in order to validate a disqualification?
Personally, I'm extremely proud the three stewards at Churchill Downs used their power to say that this potentially dangerous situation is unacceptable, setting a positive example on Thoroughbred racing's biggest stage.
Racing commissions set up the rules so that stewards are forced to use cursory handicapping skills to determine which horses had a chance to have won a race or achieved their best placing, barring an incident. The use of the phrase “may disqualify” in the official rule leaves the stewards a lot of leeway, but in this case their determination was that Maximum Security's action cost three other horses a chance at a better placing.
“Should he have come down? Absolutely. It doesn't matter if it's the Kentucky Derby or not. (Maximum Security) put people lives in danger, he put jockeys' lives in danger,” Casse said. “I feel bad for Gary Barber, because he missed his chance at possibly winning the Kentucky Derby because our horse was loading up, he wanting to run over top of that horse. A lot of people said the best horse won, you know, maybe he did. But we would have liked the chance.”
Since owner/breeder Gary West has decided not to run Maximum Security in the Preakness for a rematch against Country House and War of Will, among others, it's possible fans may never know which horse was the “best” on the first Saturday in May.
What we do know is that all horses and riders exited the race safely, and that the racing world will go on to Baltimore in two weeks to continue down the Triple Crown trail with the official Derby winner expected to race. Perhaps later this summer Maximum Security will meet some of his Derby rivals once again, or maybe even in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and only then can some of these questions really be answered.
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