John Clay

Never mind the critics and the president, Kentucky Derby made right call

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For once, horse racing got it right.

Yeah, that’s right, horse racing got it right. How about that?

Despite Saturday’s craziness and confusion, despite Sunday’s protests that included a presidential tweet, the sport that so often gets it wrong got it right when race stewards unanimously disqualified first-place finisher Maximum Security and declared second-place finisher Country House the winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby.

“From what I saw, the stewards did the right thing,” Shug McGaughey, trainer of runner-up Code of Honor, said Sunday at his Churchill Downs barn.

“I feel sorry for everyone involved,” said Mark Casse, trainer of War of Will, who played a key role in the controversy. “That being said, should the horse have been taken down? Absolutely, without a doubt.”

While in front in the turn for home, Maximum Security clearly veered from his lane and into the one occupied by War of Will. In turn, War of Will slightly brushed Country House, but dramatically affected Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. Thus, after 21 minutes and 57 seconds of investigation, the stewards stepped to the plate and for the first time in race history changed the order of finish.

“I really believe the call that was made yesterday shows the integrity of the sport,” said Bill Mott, the trainer of Country House, and the winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby, as it turned out. “It wasn’t an easy call, but if they let that go I think it would have been much more talked about.”

Long respected as one of the best horsemen in the game, the Hall of Famer did not want to accomplish his first Derby victory the way it was accomplished Saturday. Mott said so after the race. He repeated it Sunday morning as Country House walked the shedrow at Barn 19 as the Derby champion.

Jason Servis, Maximum Security’s trainer, might not agree with all this, and few would blame him if he didn’t. At about 6:55 p.m. Saturday, the brother of John Servis, trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, thought that he, too, had won the Run for the Roses. Three seconds shy of 22 minutes later, Servis was told he had finished 17th in a 19-horse race. The morning after, he texted a media member to say he was on his way to Lexington.

“I saw Jason and he was gracious and said congratulations,” said Mott of when the two crossed paths in the track tunnel Saturday. “I said, ‘Look man, I’m sorry it happened this way.’”

Meanwhile, Maximum Security co-owner Gary West told the Daily Racing Form on Sunday that if he could not lodge an appeal — Kentucky regulations state the stewards’ decision “shall be final and not subject to appeal” — he might try taking the appeal to a federal court.

No one blamed Luis Saez, the jockey on Maximum Security, who also rides regularly for Mott. A young colt who had run just four times previously, Maximum Security apparently saw something that caused him to veer out of his lane and bump War of Will. In fact, Code of Honor’s jockey John Velazquez, told McGaughey afterward his horse saw something, too, but was not sure what caused the distraction.

“I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys around because I still have War of Will this morning,” Casse said. “He could have easily went down and it would maybe have been the biggest disaster in horse racing history.”

Right now horse racing is under the gun over the deaths of 23 horses in 14 weeks at Santa Anita Park in California. But the sport has long been criticized — many times correctly — for being too slow to respond or adapt, be the issue safety, or medications, or the lack of uniformity among the various governing bodies. The fact the Kentucky stewards did not take questions Saturday night didn’t exactly live up to racing’s vow of increased transparency.

And yet, while other sports have only recently used instant replay to help make officials’ decisions, horse racing has long lead that pack. For years, stewards have used video replay of races to answer questions prompted by their initial viewing of the race or claims of foul from jockeys who rode in the race.

But even with the technology available now to clear up the confusion, there has always been the hesitation to declare a different winner. It had not been done previously in the Kentucky Derby, not for something that happened on the track. And in other sports there has long been the notion of the official “swallowing the whistle” in the final moments so the teams can decide the outcome.

That wasn’t the case at this year’s Final Four. Ahead by two points, Auburn was called for fouling Virginia’s Kyle Guy on a three-point attempt with 0.6 seconds left in regulation. Guy made all three free throws and Virginia won the game 63-62. Two nights later, the Cavaliers won again to claim the national title.

The goal is to get it right, whether it’s the final seconds of an important game or “the third race at Aqueduct,” as McGaughey said Sunday — or the running of the most-watched Thoroughbred horse race in the world. Saturday, the stewards got it right.

Preakness Stakes

What: Second leg of the Triple Crown

When: 6:48 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore

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