When jockey Luis Saez rode Maximum Security across the wire in front of 150,729 racing fans at Churchill Downs on Saturday, it marked the seventh year in a row that the favorite had won the Kentucky Derby.
Until it didn’t.
Legendary trainer Bill Mott, instructed his Country House jockey Flavien Prat, who finished second, to claim foul against Maximum Security (eventually Long Range Toddy jockey Jon Court claimed foul as well). The three stewards took 22 minutes to review the objection.
Steward Barbara Borden, citing the objections from Prat and Court, ruled that Maximum Security veered wide on the final turn, impeding War of Will and in addition, affecting other horses (Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress). As a result, they disqualified Maximum Security and rewarded the 65-1 shot Country House as the new winner; a verdict that fueled Mott’s and Prat’s jubilation.
The crowd booed. Social media erupted. Those who bet on Maximum Security fumed as they had waited in line to collect their winnings. Talking heads began the usual, backing the stewards’ decision, citing the mantra of “Rules are rules.”
“It’ll give somebody a lot to talk about for a long time,” Mott said afterward in the press conference.
Yes, people will be talking about this for a long time…for all of the wrong reasons. Yes, a foul occurred but those affected were not passing Maximum Security who led the entire race.
On the biggest stage in horse racing, stewards took a win from the best horse and accomplished what? Tainting the most prestigious race, robbing Saez and owner Gary West of an earned victory and undefeated horse, and awarding an inferior horse a “win” which everyone knows isn’t actually a win. It would be like deciding the NCAA Championship on a touch foul away from the ball.
What’s most upsetting about the stewards’ decision to DQ Maximum Security is the fact that Mott and Prat are the ones who first filed the objection. Their horse was not affected one iota and they were bested fairly. Mott was desperate for his first Kentucky Derby win and apparently didn’t care how he got it despite the public relations language he has used since.
Bob Baffert, the iconic two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer (American Pharaoh and Justify) and five-time Kentucky Derby winner, spoke with Sports Illustrated and chimed in on the controversy.
“It’s always a roughly run race,” Baffert said. “Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby. I can see by the book why they did it. But sometimes you’ve got to take your ass-kickings with dignity.”
If Will of War’s camp had been the first to make an objection or Prat had been affected and barely lost, then perhaps the decision to take away the win would be an easier pill to swallow.
The truth is, what race fans were subjected to was a bush league move by Prat and Mott. Country House was on the outside and benefited by all of the congestion in the middle. In all honesty, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Prat might be a pariah in the jock room from here on out.
A popular argument was how Maximum Security could have caused a “disaster” and killed horses. In reality, he didn’t. War of Will quickly recovered. No horse went down. It didn’t affect any actual contender. The fastest horse went wire to wire and won the race.
Supporting the decision by citing “safety’ as the concern that a message must be sent, seems a bit insincere when you consider that the Derby is a 20-horse race on a muddy track (a factor that the stewards should have taken into consideration by letting the win stand).
To make matters worse, West announced Maximum Security would not race in the Preakness and on Tuesday, Mott told the press that Country House was coughing and “acting like he’s going to get sick.”
Coming off a year where Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner and the sport was riding high, the stewards killed every bit of enthusiasm that would’ve surrounded the Preakness Stakes. There will be no 14th Triple Crown winner this year. There will be no rematch between the rightful winner and the heel champion.
The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby will forever be defined by a sore loser and three stewards feeling the need to flex their muscles to make their presence known. It’s a black eye for horse racing.
In the end, Mott and Prat will be called Kentucky Derby winners but it will come with an asterisk and although they will have the trophy, deep down they will know that they didn’t deserve it.