The Derby that won’t end: Stewards veer out of their lane with Saez suspension


The public seems ready to let the controversial Kentucky Derby finish gallop on out. The sport itself, however, seems intent on going to the whip.

Nine days after his colt, Maximum Security, was disqualified and placed 17th after crossing the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby, co-owner Gary West is vowing to sue, an effort that’s a bigger longshot than the horse who would up being placed first.

And now, Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez, who hasn’t shouldered a great deal of public blame for his mount veering several paths, at least, into Derby stretch-run traffic, has been suspended a whopping 15 racing dates by state stewards, a decision that his attorney is vowing to appeal to the state’s Horse Racing Commission, as well she should, and as stewards must have anticipated.

The whole mess, frankly, is regrettable and unfixable.

These facts are all true, most of us can probably agree:

Maximum Security was the best colt on the track on the first Saturday in May.

Maximum Security ran the best race on the first Saturday in May.

Maximum Security veered to the right, compromising the race of Long Range Toddy, and depending on your opinion, the race of War of Will. As a result, Maximum Security committed a foul that may have affected the outcome of the race, though few of us think that either of those was going to run down Maximum Security on that day.

The stewards had the authority to disqualify Maximum Security, and followed procedures set forth in Kentucky state law to do so.

The owners, trainers and jockey of Maximum Security (and every other horse in the race) signed a statement when they applied for their Kentucky licenses agreeing to abide by stewards’ directives.

The race, folks, is over.

Yes, I’ve seen the NBC tape that Saez’s attorney put out, with the fancy overlays and subtitles. The tape is interesting. It shows War of Will closing in on the leader and there being potential contact between the two.

It is a limited and flawed video. The angle does not provide the proper perspective on the paths the various horses occupied. It’s a nice try, but nothing close to “conclusive evidence.”

But no video, including that one, shows anything like the kind of rider negligence or recklessness that would merit a 15-day suspension in a sport that generally hands out three-day suspensions for riding infractions, many of them worse than this one.

Fifteen days is over the top. Fifteen days is a headline grabber. Fifteen days is a, pardon the expression, middle finger to Saez, Gary & Mary West, and their attorneys. You might say stewards veered too far out of their lane. Fifteen days is not likely to hold up on the appeal that is coming, and maybe that’s part of why the suspension is so long – a kind of “art of the deal” that will wind up with a six-day suspension after the appeal.

Fifteen days sends the message that an infraction in the Derby is exponentially worse than an infraction in any other race. And you know what? I’m fine with that. Because it is. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. A mishap in the Derby would be far worse than any other in the sport. There were 18 million people watching the Derby. This suspension sends the message that you’d better be careful in this race if you’re ever going to be careful.

All that is fine. Those are all good, and appropriate messages. But you can send them just as well with six days as 15, especially when just about every trainer in the race, from Mark Casse to Bill Mott to Bob Baffert to Todd Pletcher said that no suspension was expected.

Instead, this suspension is sure to enflame passions, ratchet up the rhetoric and – worst of all for state racing officials – give the appearance of some kind of animosity against the connections of this colt.

Look, this whole thing is screwed up and it’s not going to be unscrewed.

From the second Flavian Prat – who had only minimal claim to obstruction – filed an objection with the stewards, they had to act on the evidence they had. When Jon Court – who had ample grounds for an objection – filed his own, the deal was set.

Attorneys for Luis Saez say his ride on Maximum Security that day was “flawless.” I don’t know if I’d go that far. But the biggest flaw in it didn’t come during the turn for home. The biggest flaw may have come after passing the finish line. Hindsight always wins, but if Saez himself, seeing two objections filed, had filed one of his own – despite winning – he would’ve given stewards a clear path to leaving him on the top spot. Maybe it would’ve made a difference.

What isn’t going to make a difference is going to court. Judges aren’t going to re-run the race. All these fine video points that Team Maximum Security is making are worthless. The issue before the courts is the authority of the stewards and of the state of Kentucky to make and enforce its horse racing rules.

I wish Maximum Security had won the Kentucky Derby – and not just because I picked him to win the Kentucky Derby. But he didn’t. You’re not the winner unless your name is on top when the race goes official. You’re not the winner unless people can take their tickets and cash them. It stinks, but it happened. He veered badly. He compromised at least one horse, undeniably, and perhaps two, depending on your interpretation of all the videos.

There’s very little disputing of that around the trainers who have talked since then. It’s disappointing, but life is full of disappointments.

And most disappointing of all has been the aftermath. The lawyering up. The state racing commission escalating matters by not giving West what he felt was a fair hearing, and overreacting in the length of Saez’s suspension.

Maximum Security, trainer Jason Servis said, had cuts and is skipping the Preakness. You know who else had cuts after the Derby? Justify. Just saying.

Maximum Security is unbeaten, still. Nobody has beaten him in a race. Nobody has passed him in a race. But I can’t consider him as great as some of these others unless he does what they did. No Derby winner has skipped the Preakness in 25 years. Now in one year, connections of both the DQ’d winner and the actual winner have found reasons not to go.

Country House? Has a Kentucky Derby winner ever disappeared faster? I’d say he took the money and ran, but I don’t think he’s run at all since the Derby.

I respect that both colts have health issues preventing them from running again two weeks after the Derby – just like I respect the decision the stewards made in the Derby.

But respecting something and liking it are two different things. And there’s not much to like about the Triple Crown series in 2019. It’s a write-off. The only real winners, it seems, might be the lawyers.