Jockey Jon Court knew he was going to make Kentucky Derby history as he entered the starting gate aboard Long Range Toddy on Saturday at Churchill Downs, the oldest man ever to ride in the 145-year-history of the event.
But the kind of history the 58-year-old helped to make afterward is enough to make anyone take a deep breath. Court wound up filing the objection heard ‘round the world, picking up one of two telephones to the stewards to claim that eventual winner Maximum Security had committed a foul by veering out into lanes occupied by his own and other horses.
Race stewards eventually agreed with Court’s view — and that of Country House jockey Flavian Prat, who also filed an objection — and disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th, the first on-track disqualification in the race’s history, and a decision that has reverberated from the rolling hills of the Blue Grass to the halls of the White House.
For Court, the aftermath of that decision is still reverberating, so much so that he has broken down tape of the race like none other in his life, to watch and re-watch, from every angle imaginable, the events of that afternoon, questioning what he thought at the time, and confirming what he believed at the end of the race.
Court said he knew from the moment he got off his mount that he had a momentous decision to make.
“It was really weighing on me,” Court said after riding in the third race at Churchill Downs on Thursday. “I was like everyone else, ‘Well should I, in the Kentucky Derby?’ It was weighing on me, but it wasn’t long before speaking to the connections and the owner and seeing the look on their face that there was no question we were violated, there were several infractions on us that made it worthy enough to claim a valid objection.”
Turning for home, Court thought he had a chance to win the race.
“I was sitting in a perfect position,” he said. “We were turning for home, and I had a horse down inside of me in a tight spot, he was looking for room, but we were all looking to get to the stretch, and he started pushing his way through, and at that particular time the horse at the front started to veer out into the six path, and actually crested the seventh, which might be debatable to some, but I’ve been through the films and counted it and calculated. He did move out into the five and maybe the six, and after reviewing it earlier today and magnifying with the technology we have today, the horse might’ve crested the seven path.”
From there, things got dicey. Court said he knew he’d been in a tight spot but didn’t realize just how precarious his position had been until he reviewed the video multiple times.
“I was absolutely in danger, and I didn’t realize how much I was in danger until a few people pointed it out,” he said. “I said, ‘No I was never,’ and then I went and watched the replay, especially the rear end, and I realized how dangerous it was. And then it kind of shook me up, about 48 hours, especially 72 hours in, and then I was upset. I don’t have time to get scared. It’s not even in my vocabulary. But at that particular time, I just got angry.”
Court said he’s not sure what made Maximum Security veer out. He has some ideas, but said he’s already hurt some feelings by speculating and won’t do that anymore. He’s not out to make anyone angry or upset, but did just that in an interview with Horse Racing Nation, in which he criticized young jockeys for taking unnecessary chances. On Thursday, he only wanted to talk about his own experience in the race.
“I took a bump, and then another bump, the first two that were affecting me,” Court said. “And then instead of race riding, I went to altering my course to protect a rider that was on the inside of me. And then from there on it got erratic. I was knocked off stride and it took me off the race. It was the leader and the horse on the inside (War of Will) were the only two that bothered me. I did bump a horse on the outside but it was only because I was pushed into them, and thank goodness they moved over at least one lane … It could’ve been a travesty. I saw legs tangled in legs, and it’s absolutely a miracle that everybody came out of it unscathed with a minimum of injury, just soreness and what have you.”
Court has followed the developments since the stewards made their decisions just like everyone else. He has seen a few things that upset him and has followed all of the back and forth. He read Maximum Security trainer Jason Servis’ statement that stewards never told him about Court’s objection. He doesn’t know what stewards told Servis. He only knows what he told them.
“I’ve heard that, and in fact it was so loud I had to get down close to the ground and cup my hands around the phone and I repeated myself three times, and obviously I don’t think they heard everything I said,” he said. “But it was well aware, and I’m not shy to tell them, I’d not file an objection, believe me of all races … it weighed on me terribly.”
He wants people to know this: He is at peace with the decision he made. He’s not happy that a competitor got taken down, especially in the Kentucky Derby, but he feels like making his claim was the right thing.
“The next morning I was at the first services at church praying for those who had lost, especially the riders, because it could’ve been a travesty,” he said
Court has won more than 4,000 races. He’s ridden in the Derby four times. He’s known as a hard worker, a solid horseman and not someone given to seeking the spotlight. But after all that, a foul is precisely one of the things for which he could be most remembered.
“I rarely ever claim foul, but at this time, regardless of the level of race, or a low-end race, when I claim foul it’s usually well-known that it’s a legitimate cause and has some merit to it,” he said.
Still, the sheer scope of all that has happened since, the attention, the president weighing in, the breaking down and lawyering up, you’d be inhuman if that didn’t take some toll on you. He keeps going over the race videos, he said, “like probably none other before, on a forensic level.”
“I am at peace, and have been at peace, but as I said, about 72 hours in, I started getting a little disruptive and concerned at everything that has transpired with the magnitude of the controversy that it is,” he said. “It is in sports, and we see things. Fortunately, it was no travesty and no injury, and no one fell, because it was right there. . . . There’s some regrets, but not making the decision I had to make. All I can say is I stand by my decision if I had to do it all over again.”
“Looking back on it, I’m just glad that everyone came back safe,” Court added. “It’s a shame that it had to happen in the Derby, but (the Derby) is not above and beyond. Racing is going to go on, sporting events have these kinds of things, but at least we were all able to go home and we survived to race another day.”