Maximum Security will go down in history as, officially, the 17th place finisher in the 145th Kentucky Derby – despite actually finishing more than 18 lengths to the good of the official 16th place finisher. The son of New Year’s Day had been identified by bettors as the second most likely winner of the race, and most of the prominent speed figure makers had certainly labeled him as the fastest horse in the race, if not also the likeliest winner. The three-year old homebred colt owned by prominent owners Gary and Mary West ran true to form in the biggest race of his life. He broke sharply, took control of the race from the outset and led nearly every step of the way, crossing the wire ahead of the 18 other participants and nearly 2 lengths ahead of his closest pursuer. Country House, the 18th choice of the betting public, also ran a lifetime best – the result of a magnificent training job by Bill Mott and his team. The Lookin At Lucky colt received a clean trip from jockey Flavien Prat, had every opportunity to get past Maximum Security in the stretch and just could not do it, clearly finishing second best. Country House will go down in history as, officially, the winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby.
Over $9 million was wagered on Maximum Security in the win, place and show pools – not to mention millions more in the multitude of exotic wagering pools involving the Derby. All of those bettors were right, but they got nothing for it. Will they be back next year, pumping another record handle into the accounts that help fuel purses for the entirety of the Churchill meet? Or will this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some – fatigued by a game that is just so tough to beat and an industry that continually shows them no appreciation. Gary and Mary West owned the best horse in the Derby. They have poured millions of dollars into the thoroughbred business throughout their 30 year involvement. They got nothing for their horse’s “17th place” finish.
Garnering sympathy for hard luck gamblers or ultra-wealthy race horse owners is a fruitless exercise. No one is losing sleep over the fact that bettors lost money (on a winner) on the Kentucky Derby. Nor is anyone staying awake at night because a couple worth somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars didn’t receive a nice bouquet of roses, a shiny new trophy, and another couple million dollars in their bank account. For some reason though, I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with this Derby “result”. It’s always difficult when a horse that is clearly best crosses the line first and is ultimately stripped of victory. “The rules are the rules,” it’s been said. I know the rules, and I don’t necessarily have a problem with them – though I do wish, like European rules, they gave the stewards more leeway to protect the betting public in cases like this one. For what it’s worth, I do not disagree with either of the two decisions made by the stewards. Yes, they made two decisions. The first was to let the result stand by not filing an inquiry. Apparently they did not see anything they believed was egregious enough to affect the running order as they crossed the line and were willing to let any instances of contact pass as part of the game. The second decision they made was with their backs to the wall. Flavien Prat’s baseless objection forced the stewards to look at the incident at the five-sixteenths pole while Jon Court’s more accurate claim of foul required that they review how Long Range Toddy (17th under the wire) may have been affected by that same incident. After a lengthy review it was determined that race winner Maximum Security did indeed cross into the path of War of Will, causing a domino effect that also very likely kept Long Range Toddy from achieving his best possible finish. Based on that determination, the Kentucky rules of racing required the stewards to place Maximum Security behind Long Range Toddy in the official order of finish. I don’t fault the stewards for leaving us with a Derby result that feels blatantly unjust. Barring a jockey’s objection, they appeared willing to let the result stand. They saw no need to interject themselves into the situation if the participants themselves were fine with the result. Claims of foul by two different jockeys (one frivolous, the other just petty as it merely accomplished moving a 17th place finisher to 16th) forced the stewards to review the tape under a microscope and adjudicate whether or not the winner had created (purposefully or not) havoc that impeded the trips of those behind him and robbed them of their best possible placement in the race. We could argue for days about whether War of Will or Long Range Toddy would have won the race, or hit the board, or even cracked the top 5 had their trips been uncompromised. (We could also argue about whether Maximum Security is even the appropriate horse to blame for the interference: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/maximum-security-kentuck-derby-new-video_n_5cd76df1e4b0705e47dd5948 ) That’s not the point. The simple fact that we could have an argument implies that the stewards made the right decision. For what it’s worth, War of Will ran on strongly after the incident for another quarter of a mile before backing up late in the final sixteenth, implying he may not have gotten the distance even with a clean trip.
The point is that the thoroughbred industry has never done a great job of policing itself. It’s an industry littered with alphabet organizations all claiming they want what’s best for the game but full of disagreement on what actually is best for the game. What seems to fuel most of the disagreement is greed. The industry stakeholders are in favor of making changes for the greater good so long as the changes don’t lessen their stake. Everyone wants to gain but very few want to give.
That leads me to the part of the Derby debacle that really rubs me the wrong way – the objection from the Country House camp. It’s been reported at least a couple different ways, so I’m not sure which one is accurate. One version of events goes that jockey Flavien Prat claimed foul shortly after crossing the finish line by lodging his objection via an outrider. Another report said that Jose Ortiz, rider of the Bill Mott-trained Tacitus alerted the trainer to the incident. Mott and Prat huddled after the rider had dismounted from his runner-up finish, reasoned that they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by lodging an objection based on Ortiz’s view of the events, and Prat was then instructed by Mott to lodge the objection. I don’t suppose it really matters which way it went down. Country House was in no way impeded by Maximum Security. He was second best, beaten on the square by a superior horse that ran a faster race. It was a tremendous accomplishment by a classy, Hall of Fame trainer to get a horse to peak on the right day and run far better than anyone expected. History will end up calling it Mott’s first Derby victory. It doesn’t feel like a victory. It sure didn’t look like a victory when Country House crossed the wire nearly two lengths behind Maximum Security. What it feels like is greed. Whether it was Prat’s decision or Mott’s or some combination of the two, it just feels unjust. They weren’t bothered by the winner. They didn’t have the best horse, but they saw an opportunity to steal a win on the biggest stage from another jockey and trainer ready to celebrate their first victory in the race. The rules allowed it. They didn’t cheat their way into the winner’s circle, but they sure didn’t earn it either. Unsurprisingly, Bob Baffert (via text to SI writer Tim Layden) may have summed up the whole mess best, “No one ever calls an objection in the Derby. It’s always a roughly run race. 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.”
P. T. Barnum coined the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Given that the Derby aftermath has been nothing but a media circus, I suppose the validity of that assertion will be put to the test this weekend. The numbers will tell the tale. Will all the post-Derby talk drive television ratings for the Preakness? Will all the fingers that have swiped and pointed and clicked through countless web articles and blogs log on to their ADW accounts on Saturday and push dollars into the betting pools? We’ll see whether all the attention drives the market indicators in the right direction or whether everyone was just tuning in to enjoy the circus.