Author: Michele MacDonald
In just a shade under two minutes and four seconds, 19 horses began crossing the muddy finish line at Churchill Downs on 4 May to the raucous screams of over 150,000 fans. Yet more than 60 hours later, the race remained in caustic and unprecedented contention as the first ever disqualification of a horse who preceded his rivals in the one and a quarter miles of the Kentucky Derby appeared on its way to federal court. American racing, already in emotional disarray over 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park early this year, continued to elicit public eruptions of discontent, with venomous verbal barbs hurled via social media at the connections of the elevated Derby winner, Country House, who had been second at the wire.
Gary and Mary West, billionaire owners of the previously unbeaten Maximum Security, who galloped to the Derby finish first after veering sharply on the far turn and impeding several other contenders, refused to accept the decision of track stewards that their horse must be disqualified for interference. Almost immediately after the race, when the three stewards declined to meet with them to discuss the ruling, the Wests started tossing around the word ‘lawsuit’, a strategy with which they are familiar. The Wests also threated Breeders’ Cup Ltd with a federal lawsuit when that organisation was attempting to move its championship racing event into harmony with international rules and forbid the use of Lasix and other medications for horses that were competing.
The drug-free initiative was dropped by Breeders’ Cup in 2013 under the spectre of costly litigation in a move that continued to isolate American racing from the rest of the world. On 9 May, the Wests issued a public statement that they were reviewing legal avenues they considered best to challenge the stewards’ Kentucky Derby ruling, which, under state racing regulations, cannot be appealed. Thus, their 6 May petition to Kentucky authorities that they described as a ‘formal protest, objection and appeal’ was summarily denied. “Faced with the Kentucky Racing Commission’s denial of any recourse, we are left to evaluate our legal options, which we are now doing. We believe that with a just and proper hearing of our case, Maximum Security will be restored as the rightful winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby,” the Wests declared in their statement.
What the impact on American racing could be remains to be seen. But at a time when there is so much scrutiny over Thoroughbred racing that federal oversight is again being proposed through legislation pending in Congress, the sport seems at a fiery crossroads. It goes without saying that legal and governmental intervention often does not end well for any party, but the wealthy often can prolong and affect ultimate determinations with their financial resources. Although anyone can see why the Wests are disappointed and upset, it is easier to understand that the rules of racing were correctly followed in the 145th Kentucky Derby, which was run 24 hours after one of the fillies in the Kentucky Oaks fell soon after leaving the starting gate when she clipped heels.
The same stewards that would judge Maximum Security’s interference ruled that 2018 Champion Juvenile Filly Jaywalk was to blame for taking the path belonging to Positive Spirit, who fell and rolled, narrowly missing her tumbling jockey, Manny Franco. The stewards demoted Jaywalk from her sixth place finish to 13th in the Oaks. Front running Serengeti Empress romped to a visually impressive victory to earn the ‘lilies for the fillies’ in 1:50.17 for the Oaks’ 1m1f, and, in something of a miracle, Positive Spirit and Franco rose from the track unharmed. Conditions were far worse the following day after significant rainfall transformed the Churchill track into a sticky quagmire for the Derby.
Maximum Security, who began his career five days before Christmas while winning a $16,000 claiming race for the Wests, had won the Florida Derby on 30 March by leading all the way and he tried the same tactic at Churchill Downs. Challenged early by Rebel Stakes winner Long Range Toddy and nonwinner but Florida Derby runner-up Bodexpress, the latter of which drew into the Kentucky Derby field when early favourite Omaha Beach was withdrawn due to an entrapped epiglottis, Maximum Security sped through the first quarters in :22.31 and : 46.62. When the field was powering through the far turn, with just over a quarter mile to go, Maximum Security veered sharply, colliding with Risen Star Stakes winner War Of Will and forcing him into Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress just at the crucial juncture when all runners were launching their closing kicks.
Long Range Toddy in turn brushed with the rallying Country House. Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez quickly grabbed his mount and steered him back into his lane, and the colt continued battling, holding off Country House to his outside and Code Of Honor to his inside, finishing first by one and three quarter lengths. Final time on a sloppy (sealed) track was 2:03.93. That was just the beginning of the story, however. Both jockey Jon Court, on Long Range Toddy, and Flavien Prat, on multiple Graded Stakes placed Country House, claimed foul against Maximum Security. Over 22 minutes of high tension ensued as the stewards deliberated. Saez and Maximum Security’s trainer, Jason Servis, stood in the mud in the middle of the track, their facial muscles taut, each seeming to sense that the ruling was going to go against them.
As Country House’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, famous in the UAE for winning the inaugural Dubai World Cup with dual American Horse of the Year Cigar, noted stoically: “There was definitely a foul in the race. “You’re supposed to keep a straight line when you’re riding, and there shouldn’t be a difference between a maiden $10,000 claiming race and the Kentucky Derby. … There’s over 100,000 people here and the stewards don’t want to make that call, but it’s their duty to do the right thing and I hope they do,” Mott said. Following the announcement that the stewards had indeed disqualified Maximum Security and placed him behind Long Range Toddy, who had finished 17th, a discordant chorus of boos echoed around the track.
There often is bumping and other mayhem in the always large Derby field, but nothing had happened in the recent past anything like what unfolded in the rain and mud on this day. Fans were puzzled and angry about the disqualification of a horse who seemed like a strong winner. “We had a lengthy review of the race. We interviewed affected riders,” chief Kentucky steward Barbara Borden said in a brief meeting with media. “We determined that Maximum Security drifted out and impacted the progress of No. 1 (War Of Will), in turn, interfering with Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference. “Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify Maximum Security and place him behind No. 18, Long Range Toddy,” she said, noting that “the 18 being the lowest placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”
Kentucky rules of racing state that: ‘A leading horse, if clear, is entitled to any part of the track. 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 a jockey strikes another horse or jockey, it is 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’. Thus, with the ruling, Country House inherited the Derby winner’s blanket of red roses, becoming the first Run for the Roses winner for Mott, who also sent Serengeti Empress out Juddmonte’s Tacitus to earn third after being moved up from fourth in the running order.
The victory in America’s most prominent race by disqualification ironically marked the first Stakes win for Country House, a son of Lookin At Lucky out of the War Chant mare Quake Lake, who is a half-sister to Canadian Classic winner Breaking Lucky. The late Wall Street financier Joseph Shields Jr bred Country House, and the colt is raced by a partnership including Shields’ widow, Maury Shields. While most of the race participants acknowledged the need for the Kentucky racing interference rule to be applied to the Derby result, neither the Wests nor many fans were satisfied. Even President Donald Trump felt compelled to tweet that “Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur.”
In subsequent days, Gary West’s comments included blaming War Of Will, who he alleged in an interview with Fox News had ranged up too closely behind Maximum Security and caused him to swerve. War Of Will’s jockey Tyler Gaffalione retorted by posting photos of the incident on Twitter and maintaining that “Never did I bump or push anyone.” Mark Casse, War Of Will’s trainer, took the denial of West’s allegation further, as did the colt’s owner, Gary Barber, who pointed out that the swerve and collision could have resulted in a catastrophic fall or breakdown and the loss of equine and/ or human life. Maximum Security “caused a major infraction that almost led to a catastrophe and in doing so, denied my horse and others of a better placing,” said Barber, who indicated he understood West’s pain at the stewards’ decision but stressed that “it is wrong for him to deflect blame anywhere else.”
“Mr West is distraught and I understand that. But in no way did War Of Will have anything to do with the actions of Maximum Security,” Casse said. “Not only did Maximum Security bother us in the big event, he herded everybody going into the half mile pole and caused interference there as well.” Casse described Maximum Security’s manoeuvers as being similar to those of a drunk driver. Intriguingly, Saez, who had said only that “my horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little”, reportedly hired a lawyer to defend his ride. Prat, Court, Gaffalione, John Velazquez on Code Of Honor and Chris Landeros on Bodexpress all said their horses were affected by Maximum Security’s dramatic shift. Prat indicated that Country House was momentarily “kind of turned sideways” while Gafflione and Landeros each said they had to “check pretty hard.”
Court, 58, who set a record as the oldest rider ever in a Kentucky Derby, said “things just became a fiasco” after Maximum Security veered. “I was just engaging momentum when the horse collared me,” Court said, indicating that Long Range Toddy was full of running. He also noted that some of the youngest riders in the race, 27yo Saez and 24yo Gafflione, were most involved in the incident. “What does that tell you? There’s something there with them that was lacking that created this historical moment in this prestigious race,” Court said. “Sometimes we have to make a decision to not let our anxiousness to win compromise the safety of the equine we’re sitting upon or the riders involved. “I will commend Barbara Borden for the speech that she gives before every Derby.
She speaks slowly and articulately. She makes it clear and repeats herself on the judgement that we make on these horses that we have the pleasure to ride: ‘Do not, do not take chances,’” he said. “She had to make a decision (on the disqualification) because I think her words were taken lightly.” Depending on what action the Wests ultimately take and how long they may pursue it in what can be a tedious legal process, the story of this Kentucky Derby may not be over for quite a while. What is clear now is that there will not be a Triple Crown hero to follow Justify’s heroics last year and American Pharoah’s in 2015. Country House came down with a cough soon after the Derby and will not make the Preakness Stakes.
Neither will Maximum Security, who was said to have incurred cuts on his hind legs in the Derby. Additionally, official Derby runner-up Code Of Honor and third placed Tacitus also were expected to avoid the Preakness, reducing the lustre of the middle jewel in the Triple Crown series. With part of the ageing grandstand at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore recently closed for the Preakness and concerns about horse safety still at a peak after the near disastrous incidents in both the Kentucky Oaks and Derby, American racing needs a hero as much as ever. Perhaps in the coming weeks one will emerge out of the maelstrom, or perhaps the storms of controversy will only intensify.
Award Winning International Journalist