If the race stewards who overturned the outcome of the 145th Kentucky Derby with an unprecedented disqualification of the winner had taken questions, there’s one answer in particular that needed to be heard:
It would have been to this question: What’s changed?
The Derby has always been officiated as a unique entity unlike other races.
When you enter a horse in the Derby, you are accepting that the very conditions of the race — run with a maximum field of up to 20 horses — all but assure an unusually high level of contact between competitors that does not exist in other races.
On Sunday, Bob Baffert, who has trained horses to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle five times, outlined what I thought the prevailing Kentucky Derby ethos was to Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden.
“No one calls an objection in the Derby,” Baffert said. “Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby.”
Of course, this year, a rare Kentucky Derby objection was not only entered, it was upheld.
En route to leading wire-to-wire Saturday at a rainy Churchill Downs, Maximum Security suddenly veered right, well out of his racing line, in the far turn.
It appeared the horse was spooked, whether by the roar of 150,729 patrons, the reflection of the track lights off the puddles of water around the racing surface or something else.
At least two horses, War of Will and Long Range Toddy, were impeded by contact caused by Maximum Security’s abrupt move.
After the race, Jon Court, jockey on Long Range Toddy, and Flavien Prat, who rode race runner-up Country House, filed objections with the stewards claiming Maximum Security, ridden by jockey Luis Saez, had fouled.
Following an agonizing delay of more than 20 minutes, race stewards Barbara Borden, Butch Becraft, and Tyler Picklesimer upheld the objections.
Maximum Security was disqualified from first to 17th (one spot behind the finishing place of the last of the horses, Long Range Toddy, he was ruled to have impeded). Country House was moved up from second to first.
Since Saturday, the opinions of most prominent trainers other than Baffert as well as many writers who cover horse racing with far more regularity and expertise than do I have been in support of the stewards’ ruling.
I would have less ambivalence about the decision to DQ the Kentucky Derby winner if it had not been such a sharp departure from the way the Run for the Roses has traditionally been “called.”
In the 2017 Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire broke from the No. 14 gate only to be steamrolled by the horses starting to his outside from the auxiliary gate as they jockeyed for position going into the first turn.
NBC race analyst Randy Moss later told USA Today that the “hit” that Classic Empire “took out of the gate was like an NFL line of scrimmage.”
A 6-1 betting choice, Classic Empire rallied to finish fourth. There is every reason to think his being slammed at the start compromised a realistic chance to win.
There was no talk of disqualifications.
Down the stretch of the 2001 Derby, eventual race-winner Monarchos drifted into the path of a hard-charging Invisible Ink, stalling the latter’s momentum.
In that case, the winner appeared to have clearly impeded the horse that finished second. Invisible Ink’s jockey, John Velazquez, lodged an objection against Monarchos for interference in the stretch.
That was not upheld.
It would have been nice if Borden, Becraft and Picklesimer would have explained to a Kentucky Derby audience that includes millions of people who do not follow horse racing day-to-day why the 2019 Derby was “called tighter.”
All three appeared before the media after Saturday night’s race while Borden read a brief statement about the decision to disqualify Maximum Security. The trio then refused to answer questions.
We’re left to wonder if the deaths of 23 horses this year at Santa Anita racetrack in California has created a psychological environment in which the stewards were afraid not to act.
Tyler Gaffalione, the jockey aboard War of Will, did a masterful job of keeping his horse upright after Maximum Security moved into his racing line. Had War of Will gone down, it could have set off a chain reaction that could have been calamitous.
Yet because Churchill Downs, Inc., allows such large Derby fields (after scratches, 19 horses contested this year’s race), every Kentucky Derby is conducted on the precipice of disaster.
After the stewards had declared Country House the Derby winner, Mott said, “if it was just a regular race on a Wednesday, I think they would have taken the winner down.”
Alas, the Kentucky Derby is not “a regular race on a Wednesday” and, before 2019, had always been run as a unique entity all its own.
It would be nice if someone in the chain of command over the decision that altered the winner of our nation’s signature horse race would explain why that changed.
What: Second leg of the Triple Crown
When: 6:48 p.m. Saturday, May 18
Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore