The Kentucky Derby is over, and nobody is happy. Not the large and rain-soaked Churchill Downs crowd of 150,729, many of whom booed loudly when the final result was made official. Not the backers and connections of Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first to appear to become the 10th unbeaten Derby winner.
Not even Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, whose Country House was elevated to first after a claim of foul by his jockey, Flavian Prat, resulted in Maximum Security, being knocked down to 17th.
“Bittersweet,” was the word Mott used.
“I’d be lying if I said it was any different,” Mott said. “You always want to win with a clean trip and have everybody recognize the horse as the very good horse and for the great athlete that he is. I think, due to the disqualification, probably some of that is diminished.”
Probably so. Slightly Inebriated Guy No. 1 in the Churchill Downs paddock 90 minutes after the race said so.
“We’ve become figure skating,” he said. “You can’t race? It’s ridiculous.”
He pointed at Slightly Inebriated Guy No. 2.
“Look at him,” he said. “He bet (Maximum Security). He’s devastated.”
But you didn’t have to venture into the grandstands or through the paddock to hear doubts about the 22-minute stewards review that took down a Kentucky Derby winner on the track for the first time in history.
The entire 22-minute on-track ordeal was surreal. I was in the middle of it. As the minutes dragged on and the stewards considered the foul claim against Maximum Security, the realization started to dawn on trainer Jason Servis. In the winner’s circle, the flowers already had been presented to Maximum Security co-owner Mary West. They had to be taken back.
And there everyone stood. A clump of reporters and photographers around Servis. A group around Mott. Another around Prat.
Inside the stewards office, a thorough investigation was under way. And it must be said, none of them seemed particularly happy at the job they felt like they had to do after watching multiple replays. In fact, the stewards themselves posted no inquiry.
Instead, Chief Steward Barbara Borden said after the race that jockeys from two horses — John Court aboard Long Range Toddy and Prat — filed a claim of foul against Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez after his horse bore out from his inside position going into the final turn, forcing Long Range Toddy and War of Will to shuffle back and taking them out of contention. War of Will, Plat said, bumped into his horse. His jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, filed no claim.
“We had a lengthy review of the race,” she said. “We interviewed the affected riders. We determined that the 7 horse drifted out and impacted the progress of No. 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. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify No. 7 and place him behind the 18, being the lowest-place horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”
Borden went out of her way to note that the finding was unanimimous among the three stewards. It takes only two of the three for a claim of foul to be upheld.
Whether it was hard racing or an unfair racing move will be debated for some time. Marty McGee, longtime Kentucky correspondent for the Daily Racing Form, called it an “awful, awful” call.
That Maximum Security’s move didn’t directly impact Country House makes it tougher to swallow.
“The best horse won the race,” Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey and NBC commentator said of Maximum Security as the stewards inquiry dragged on. That has often been an unofficial standard for whether a foul claim should be upheld, especially in a race of this magnitude.
Instead, Country House’s name was being placed in the Derby winner’s honored position in the Churchill Downs paddock, and Mott has filled in the only gaping hole in his Hall of Fame resume.
The 65-year-old South Dakota native began training horses at the age of 15. His career is best-known for training the legendary Cigar, who won 16 straight races in the mid-1990s. He has won 10 Breeders’ Cup races and the Belmont Stakes, but the Derby had eluded him until, after a long delay on a sloppy Churchill Downs racetrack, surrounded by a group of reporters, Mott saw the name of his colt, Country House, flashing on the board in the infield.
“And there we have it,” he said, as he was whisked away into the Winner’s Circle.
Country House came into the race as a fairly undistinguished and lightly raced colt, whose last race was a nearly 8-length third-place finish behind Omaha Beach, who had been the Derby favorite until being scratched days before the race with an airway issue.
Despite the controversy, Mott was moved by the victory. He’d come up empty in the Derby in eight tries before bringing two, Country House and Tacitus, this year.
“It’s pretty special,” he said. “I guess until last year, I held the record here at Churchill Downs for the number of wins. And I think we held that record for 32 years. So I kind of cut my teeth here. Being in this position is a very special thing. My hope was always to come ack and run in the Derby. . . . Could I ever have imagined winning it? Well, you always hope.”
For Jason Servis, who thought for nearly 20 minutes he had won the Kentucky Derby with a $16,000 claiming horse who has yet to be passed on the racetrack and has finished first in all five of his career races, it was as tough a reaction as you might expect.
He acknowledged that his horse came out wide going into the final turn. But he didn’t agree with the stewards’ call.
“I don’t think it changed the outcome of the race,” he said. “It looks like something scared him in the infield. . . . I feel bad for (Gary & Mary) West (the owners). . . . It’s tough. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it will. He did duck out a little bit, but when Luis set him down, it was impressive.”
“I never put anybody in danger,” Saez said. “My horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little.”
Already after the race, there was some indication that the result could face an appeal. Owner Gary West didn’t commit to that, but did tell the San Diego Union Tribune of the possibility of an appeal: “I have to study the film and review my legal options. I won’t know anything for a couple of days. But I might.”
By the book, stewards may well have made the right call. Horse racing isn’t the first sport to have a video replay cause controversy. Even Mott acknowledged, for a sport that has been under scrutiny for horse deaths and race-day medications, the flap over this will be a conversation-changer.
“It will give somebody a lot to talk about for a long time,” he said. “I mean they’ll be speaking about the result of this race from now until they run the next Kentucky Derby and the next 10 Kentucky Derbys and 20 Kentucky Derbys. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if this race shows up on TV over and over and over a year from now.”
He’s right. Whether this was foul play or just hard racing is a matter that will continue to be debated. The Kentucky Derby is a 19- or 20-horse field. Horses get slammed, cut off, or worse every year .Traffic is a part of it. Maximum Security’s move at the head of the stretch clearly affected other horses. Would they have been able to catch him down the stretch without it? These were the debates that raged at every level of the venerable track, from the most expensive seats to the swampy infield.
In the end, Country House paid $132.40 to win, for those few lucky enough to bet him.
But other than those, nobody left happy.