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Kentucky Derby 145 rewind: Celebs to unexpected race results
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Sports 2019 has seen more than its fair share of controversial officials’ decisions in high-stakes events. A non-call in an NFL conference championship. Several controversial foul calls in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. So why should horse racing be any different?
So there we were Saturday at horse racing’s most famous event, moments after Maximum Security had crossed the finish line first, with winning connections rushing to the track to celebrate, when the public address announcer told the crowd of 150,729 at Churchill Downs: “Hold all tickets! Hold all tickets! A riders’ objection has been placed by the second-place horse Country House against the first-place horse Maximum Security.”
Bill Mott, the trainer of Country House scurried up the tunnel — with yours truly close behind — and into a small room with a high-definition television. There, the Hall of Fame trainer watched the replay over and over, pointing to where the alleged infraction occurred, where at the quarter pole it appeared that Maximum Security had impeded the progress of two other horses.
“If this was a claiming race on a weekday afternoon he would definitely come down (be disqualified),” said Mott as he left the room. “But this is the Kentucky Derby.”
Turned out, in the eyes of the racing stewards who decide such matters, that didn’t make any difference. After more waiting, and for the first time in the 145-year history of the race, the apparent winner (Maximum Security) was taken down and the runner-up (Country House) was put up as the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
In a unanimous decision among the three stewards that required 21 minutes and 57 seconds of deliberations, chief steward Barbara Borden said the stewards decided that “the No. 7 horse had impacted the progress of No. 1 (War of Will) and in turn interfered the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and the 21 (Bodexpress). The horses were all affected by the interference.” (The stewards did not take questions.)
Thus Maximum Security was placed 17th in the 19-horse field behind Long Range Toddy. And Country House was placed first.
“It’s bittersweet,” admitted Mott after his first Kentucky Derby victory, and with a horse that paid the second-highest price, $132.40, in the history of the race. “But with that being said, I’m damn glad they put our number up.”
Dancer’s Image was disqualified as the race’s winner in 1968, but that was over a failed drug test. Forward’s Pass, the second-place finisher was declared the winner in a controversial decision that spawned several years of contentious legal battles.
“I don’t even want to think about that,” said Mott when asked if he feared any kind of legal action. “It’ll give people a lot to talk about for a long time. They’ll be talking about this the next Kentucky Derby, and the one after that and probably 10 Kentucky Derbys.”
Maximum Security had run a race similar to the one he had run to win the Florida Derby on March 30, taking to the lead early, proceeding at a reasonable pace, then appearing to hold off the rest of the field on the way to the win.
But about the quarter pole things got crowded and a couple of horses behind Maximum Security backed up and lost ground as the field began the turn for home. Jose Ortiz, the rider on Mott’s other Derby horse, Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, told his trainer afterward, “There was really a wild incident that took place in front of me.”
“I think it affected (Country House) slightly, but I’d say it affected the other two horses dramatically,” Mott said. “They lost all chance.”
Given his odds of 65-1, not many thought Country House had much of a chance on Saturday. Third-place finisher Tacitus was the Mott horse most felt had the best chance of winning. But the one Mott called a “big, tough horse” had been improving since he finished third in the slop in the Arkansas Derby on April 13.
Owned by Mrs. J.V. Shields, wife of the late Jerry Shields of Thomasville, Ga., along with E.J. McFadden Jr. and LNJ Foxwoods (Larry, Nancy and Jamie Roth), Country House is a son of Lookin At Lucky, out of the War Chant mare Quake Lake. He had not won a race since breaking his maiden on Feb. 16.
Code of Honor, trained by 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Shug McGaughey with Orb, finished second. Trainer Bob Baffert failed in his bid to tie the legendary Ben Jones with six Derby victories as his star-studded trio finished fourth (Improbable), fifth (Game Winner) and 15th (Roadster).
Master Fencer, the first Japanese-bred horse to run in a Kentucky Derby, wound up sixth. And War of Will, one of the horses who was affected by Maximum Security, ran seventh.
“I don’t think it was anything the rider did,” said Mott of Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez. “I think it was the horse. I think he’s a little green and he seemed to shy to the inside.”
In fact, after the decision was announced, Mott saw Maximum Security’s trainer, Jason Servis, and, “I told him the win was bittersweet and I felt for him. But he’s an experienced trainer. I think he knows what happened.”
“Right now I’m kind of OK,” said Servis after the decision. “But I’m sure tomorrow I might not be.”
Something that happens on plenty of race days throughout the year, just rarely in the biggest race of them all.
“I’ve been on the other end plenty of times, too,” said Mott. “That’s horse racing.”
Remaining Triple Crown races
Preakness Stakes: May 18 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
Belmont Stakes: June 8 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.