LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Friday night, my daughters about to experience their first Kentucky Derby, my youngest child Ella Beth made a prediction concerning the world's most famous horse race.
"Dad," she said, "I think something historic is going to happen at this Derby. I don't know if it's going to be good or bad. But it's going to be historic."
Unfortunately, she wasn't so prescient regarding any betting tips concerning who might win.
But at roughly 6:53 p.m. Saturday, Maximum Security having apparently raced to victory against 18 overmatched foes atop a sloppy track, the following words arrived from the Churchill Downs public address announcer: "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."
The 21 minutes and 57 seconds of surreal silence that followed will go down in history as the most uncomfortable ever endured at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Would the racing stewards, could the racing stewards possibly take down a Kentucky Derby winner, especially one that pretty much led wire to wire?
A crowd of 150,729 — a crowd that wagered $6 million more on Maximum Security than Country House — nervously waited, and waited, and waited and waited for an official outcome.
Finally, stunningly, came the results, and to more than a few boos. Maximum Security had become the first winner in the Derby's 145 runnings to be disqualified for an in-race violation. Country House — which had finished second and whose jockey, Flavien Prat, had filed one of two complaints against the original winner — was declared the official winner.
Almost immediately, the determination of whether this historic finish was good or bad for the sport began to unfold from those most affected by it.
Maximum Security owner Gary West told the Associated Press late Saturday night: "I think this is the most egregious disqualification in the history of horse racing, and not just because it's our horse."
Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer of Country House who earned his first Kentucky Derby win because of the ruling, told the Lexington Herald-Leader before the disqualification: "If this was a claiming race on a weekday afternoon he would definitely come down (be disqualified). But this is the Kentucky Derby."
Noted trainer Mark Casse — whose horse was one of the three most affected by Maximum Security's sudden move to the outside — "I feel like I'm one of the luckiest guys around because I still have War of Will this morning. He could have easily went down and it would maybe have been the biggest disaster in horse racing history."
That quote alone explains the three stewards' unanimous decision. Though some impressive jockey work avoided what could have been a catastrophic collision, that avoidance was as much luck as skill.
So the ruling seems a correct one, especially if you're in the corner of Country House, which became the longest odds winner (65-1) since Donerail (91-1) in 1913.
Yet it is also almost certainly another black eye for a struggling sport that sorely needs no more such controversies.
As a marvelous article in The New York Times a few days ago observed, thoroughbred racing is in trouble on multiple fronts. Two brief stats from the NYT piece: No. 1 — In 2002, more than $15 billion was bet on races in the United States, but last year, the handle fell to $11 billion; No. 2 — In 2002, nearly 33,000 thoroughbred foals were registered as racehorses compared with 19,925 last year.
Then there is this regarding Churchill Downs, which the Louisville Courier-Journal has referred to as one of the "deadliest race tracks" in America. Again, according to the Times article, the track has lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average.
But that's not all. The Times also reported nearly 10 horses a week, on average, died at American tracks in 2018. That's a minimum of 2 1/2 times greater than anywhere else in the racing world. The reasons for such a tragic, troubling stat are said to center on the drugs given horses in this country to help them run faster or mask pain, which greatly contribute to increased breakdowns.
And those stats don't include the 23 that perished for multiple reasons earlier this year at Santa Anita Park.
As darkness was descending on the Downs, if not the whole sport, Saturday night, a handful of college kids walked past the finish line with frozen frowns on their young faces.
Asked the source of their frustrations, one said, "We all had No. 7 (Maximum Security). We can't believe they disqualified him."
A few seconds later, another young man walked past, smiled and said, "I had No. 7, too. But I also had 20 (Country House). Yes I did."
The only other horse to be disqualified after a Derby win was Dancer's Image in 1968, the colt earning a DQ for testing positive for a banned substance. It took almost four years for a court to uphold that ruling, which left Forward Pass the winner.
Then, as now, when it comes to the sport of kings, one man's hurt is another man's happiness. But just in case Maximum Security owner West makes good on his threat to take legal action and he somehow prevails, all those folks who bet on No. 7 might want to hold on to their tickets until further notice.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
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