Author: Nicholas Godfrey
Following the most controversial Kentucky Derby of the modern era, under other circumstances this weekend’s Preakness Stakes might have been one of the most eagerly anticipated in years. With both Maximum Security and Country House ruled out, however, one can’t escape the feeling that the second leg of the Triple Crown is, well, a bit ‘meh’, to employ the modern argot. For the record, none of the first four past the post at Churchill Downs will be running at Pimlico, the first time there has been such a mass absence since 1951. Likely favourite is promoted fourth Improbable. Maximum Security, the horse who ‘won’ decisively before the stewards had their say, is now domiciled at Monmouth Park, where he will be prepared for the $1 million Haskell Invitational in July.
As for Country House, the rather fortunate Derby winner? Well, it did not sound as if it would take a huge amount for trainer Bill Mott to pull him out of the Preakness after a series of races without much spacing between them. Indeed, the trainer admitted he would not even have been thinking about Pimlico had Country House not been promoted to number one in Louisville, so the writing was on the wall as soon as the colt gave a suggestion of a cough in the Derby aftermath. The tabloid New York Post, never ones to avoid an emotive headline when they can find one, described the development as a ‘Triple Crown debacle’. Country House is only the fourth Kentucky Derby winner in four decades to miss the Preakness, and the first since 1996. The 1982 Derby winner Gato Del Sol missed Baltimore because trainer Eddie Gregson did not want to run him back in two weeks and instead waited for the Belmont, where he was second.
Notoriously, in 1985 Spend A Buck bypassed the Preakness to chase a lucrative bonus tied to the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park, while Grindstone never ran again after sustaining an injury in the 1996 Derby. However, if we are to be denied a rematch between Maximum Security and Country House on the racetrack, at the time of writing the story is far from over, with recriminations rumbling on amid threats of court proceedings. Everyone has seemingly had their say about the stewards’ decision at Churchill Downs so it is lucky we’re all electronic these days, or one would fear for the forests of the world given the acres of verbiage dispensed on this particular subject. But hey, who am I to buck a trend? Here are five thoughts on matters arising. Or matters that have already arisen.
1. Shades of grey
Admittedly, I might be accused of getting splinters from sitting on the fence, but this was no binary issue with a clear and obvious definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It was more grey than black and white. It is possible to suggest the Churchill Downs stewards had every right to demote Maximum Security under the prevailing US rules, while also suggesting they should not have done so. Virtually every race on the calendar features some form of interference; it is up to the stewards to decide how significant it was. To my mind, pointing to the letter of the law as a defence is a trifle disingenuous. Within reason, they can do almost whatever they like, and the fact is they did not have to demote Maximum Security and this cannot have been an ‘easy clearcut decision’. Or why has there been such an uproar since the race? Or why, in the immediate aftermath of the race, were the majority of those broadcasting on NBC adamant there would be no change to the result? Yet while it matters not a jot that Maximum Security was the ‘winner on merit’, I would have kept him as the winner but either outcome is defensible; neither is an obvious booboo. I can’t say the stewards were wrong, because neither outcome would have been 100% right. That said, you’d have to be heartless indeed not to feel more than a little sorry for poor Luis Saez, who everyone agreed was totally blameless.
2. Communications breakdown
Something clearly went amiss. No stewards’ inquiry was posted, while as far as the public (and, for that matter, all media outlets) were concerned, Country House’s rider Flavien Prat was the only one to have lodged an objection. In fact, veteran jockey Jon Court, the rider of Long Range Toddy, also objected to the winner, a potentially crucial development given that no foul affected Country House, but it certainly did affect Long Range Toddy, even if he was beaten at the time. With hindsight Prat’s objection, taken on its own, might be considered frivolous. Court’s foul claim, on the other hand, gave the stewards their justification for their decision to place Maximum Security behind any affected horse, as per the rules in Kentucky (and across the US, give or take). In the official result, Long Range Toddy was promoted to 16th, leaving Maximum Security one spot behind him in 17th. That said, a full scale stewards’ inquiry clearly took place, so in effect they could do what they liked. Shame they never saw fit to tell anybody during that dramatic 20 minute wait for the verdict, while the first anyone knew of Court’s objection came well after the conclusion of events in a statement from the stewards’ panel.
3. Give a dog a bad name
External factors are not supposed to influence any stewards’ decision, but could certain subliminal elements have played any role in the thought processes of those at the centre of the storm? How about the identity of the trainers concerned? Be honest: whose name would you rather see on the Kentucky Derby roll of honour? Hugely respected across the racing world (and especially in Dubai) the legendary Bill Mott had never before won America’s greatest race in a long, glorious career. Against him was Jason Servis, who had never trained a Grade One winner before Firenze Fire took the Champagne Stakes at Belmont in October 2017.
Given that 62yo Servis is a lifelong racetracker, at first glance his Kentucky ‘success’ might appear a lovely fairytale of David beating Goliath, but Jason Servis is not as universally popular as his younger brother John, who came in from the boondocks to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Smarty Jones in 2004. Much of this has to do with the startling improvement in Jason Servis’ fortunes in the last couple of years. From having been a consistent trainer at a ‘more than respectable’ 20-25% at lesser venues, the trainer could barely saddle a loser at Gulfstream Park’s championship meet, where his strike rate leapt to 45% (35 wins from 77 runners) and this against the toughest competition in the country. The best anyone else with more than 50 runners could manage was Champion Trainer Chad Brown at 30%; from fewer runners, Jorge Delgado was 11-for-39, or 38%.
One factor behind Servis’ outlandish win rate was his ultra aggressive placing of horses at the lower claiming levels, buying success, in other words. At times, it seemed almost as if any horse entering Servis’ barn from elsewhere could reliably be expected to win next time out. For Florida players this year, it became almost a given. That said, having started off Maximum Security in a $16k maiden claimer, which he duly won by nine and three quarter lengths, looks unnecessarily risky in retrospect. Either Servis is an idiot or you would not want to play poker against him, And rest assured, he is not an idiot.
4. Better safe than sorry
Despite the embarrassment, was this really yet another black mark for racing in the States? Or, given the much publicised travails at Santa Anita, is it possible to see the headlines garnered by the Kentucky Derby as reflecting what is merely an internecine issue, almost a welcome diversion from more worrying matters? After all, a cynical view might say these were racing headlines, and for once the focus was not on equine fatality. Even President Donald Trump was interested, though we could have done without his lame allegations about political correctness. The Kentucky Derby could have been a complete disaster. Imagine if one of those horses impeded by Maximum Security on the far turn had gone down and, perish the thought, sustained an injury or worse. You have to wonder if it could have struck a mortal blow to the beleaguered US racing community. Now, more than ever, US racing needs to demonstrate that it is well policed. With the eyes of the wider public on them, might the stewards have subconsciously thought they needed to be seen to act?
5. Teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony
Okay, this is an old chestnut, an issue that besets racing authorities wherever you go, whatever the rules. Regardless of which set of rules you are employing, the question remains about how they are interpreted by the stewards on duty. The Kentucky Derby stewards applied their rules to the letter in demoting Maximum Security for what was a much less egregious infraction than the one controversially overlooked at the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2014 when Bayern turned left immediately after exiting the starting gate and pummelled into well fancied rival Shared Belief. On the wider issue, I’ve lost count of the number of commentators who have supported the idea of global harmonisation of the rules regarding interference, wherein North America remains an outlier. Negative response to the 2010 Japan Cup disqualification of Buena Vista, widely perceived as a miscarriage of natural justice, but more correct than not under the rules, played a role in that nation’s joining the rest of the world. Will Maximum Security do the same for the States? In an era of regular continental competition, it would be idle to claim this would not be welcome, though in Britain it often feels we are far too lenient. Enough;. I’ve already added too many words to the debate. Enjoy the Preakness. There are still some good horses in there. Just not as many as there might have been.