LOUISVILLE — On Kentucky Derby Sunday morning at the backside barns, where the chitchat usually centers on how well the winner ate the night before and when he or she might ship to the Preakness, horse racing found itself in a place it had long since yielded: amid the national conversation.
The Churchill Downs stewards’ disqualification of Maximum Security for interference after his apparent win in the 145th Kentucky Derby on Saturday elevated 65-1 shot Country House to the long list of winners and earned a social media scolding from President Trump. It also sent the man who in 1998 became the youngest thoroughbred trainer inducted to the Hall of Fame into a tricky line of thinking.
“I feel terrible that I have to apologize for winning,” Country House trainer Bill Mott said around 7:30 a.m. beneath the brooding clouds amid the 56-degree chill and the sounds of grooms washing horses. “I really feel terrible for the connections, for the owners. I hate to sit there and apologize and, you know, saying something as foolish as, ‘I’m sorry I won,’ because I don’t want to give [the owners] the impression that I’m unhappy with winning. Because I’m not. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled with the horse. I’m thrilled with everybody that’s worked with the horse, and I think they deserve the win. It’s just such an unusual way to have to go to the winner’s circle and, you know, win a Kentucky Derby.”
Mott had just won his first Kentucky Derby at age 65 after spreading 10 entries judiciously across 35 years beginning in 1984, including two on Saturday, and he had won it after waiting through a singular 22-minute delay while the three stewards reviewed the video of the fracas around the last turn near the quarter-pole. He had won even after another camp had celebrated victory, shown in video taken by Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune. In an exultant suite, Jason Servis, the 62-year-old trainer of surging Maximum Security, shared hugs and congratulations with his brother John, who trained 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, and with Gary and Mary West, Maximum Security’s owners whose fortune came via telemarketing.
It came after Maximum Security had been clearly best, an unbeaten colt who could have been claimed in December for $16,000, then shooed misgivings caused by the soft pace of the Florida Derby in March to fend off 18 rivals with wire-to-wire aplomb in the biggest race in May. It came after a performance so impressive that he won even while veering briefly, possibly scared of his first-ever gigantic crowd in his fifth-ever start, impeding others and compressing the pack into close quarters.
“The riders of the 18 and 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby lodged objections against the 7 horse,” steward Barbara Borden said, referring to Long Range Toddy (No. 18); his rider, Jon Court; Country House (No. 20); his rider, Flavien Prat; and Maximum Security (No. 7).
Mott had instructed Prat to object shortly after jockey Jose Ortiz arrived on Mott’s other charge, Tacitus, who wound up third after originally finishing fourth. “[Ortiz] said, ‘Man . . . there was a lot of, you know, bumping going on.' He said there was a real incident at that point, and I think, in his mind, he said, ‘They’ve got to take it down.’ I mean, just the way he was looking at it, and he probably had the best view of anybody, and he thought it was a no-brainer.”
Three other trainers in the race agreed Sunday, but none was Jason Servis, who did not show up on the backstretch.
“I absolutely, positively believe they were right in their decision,” said Mark Casse, the Louisvillian who trains War of Will, who took Maximum Security’s main brunt and ended up eighth before the post-race adjustment. “If they made a mistake, it would be that they should put an inquiry up, probably, afterward,” referring to a racetrack sign, which did not go up Saturday and which appears when track officials suspect a foul.
He added, “That controversy yesterday is nothing next to the controversy that would have happened had our horse fallen. It would have been disastrous. If you don’t think that was a near-disaster, then you don’t know what you’re watching.”
Trainer Shug McGaughey, a 68-year-old fixture of the sport who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb, said he had missed the incident while watching his horse, Code of Honor, finish third (before an upgrade to second). “Then when I saw the pictures last night,” McGaughey said, “I have to agree the stewards made the right call.”
“If anything good comes out of it,” two-time winner Todd Pletcher told Ed McNamara of Newsday after Pletcher’s entries finished 11th and 18th, “it should be that racing would make the right call in the biggest moment, but it was a call you have to make. . . . I think it sends a great message for the integrity of the sport at a time when we’ve been under fire” after a grim winter at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., in which 23 horses died between Dec. 26 and March 31.
“It wasn’t an easy call,” Mott said, “but if they let that go yesterday, I think it would have been much more talked about.”
The 145th Derby, only the second to end in disqualification and the first to do so from an in-race infraction, had begun what figures to become a long stay in conversation. McGaughey, who lives nearby, said he found his car-radio dial rich in miffed wagerers. Soon after McGaughey spoke Sunday morning, President Trump tweeted his displeasure with the stewards’ ruling. Said McGaughey, “We’re gon’ be in the news the next couple of weeks.”
The overturn had overwhelmed the usual after-Derby talk. Mott said he hadn’t talked with the various owners about the Preakness, even if he knows people expect the Derby winner to be there — even a Derby winner who didn’t hit the wire first in any of his three Derby prep races or in the Derby itself. He had crossed paths just once with Servis, a longtime acquaintance; Servis offered congratulations, and Mott said, “Look, man, sorry it happened this way."
“I don’t think anybody wants to win that way,” Mott concluded. “You know, you’d rather have it a clear-cut victory with no objections, no foul, and not have to answer the questions that, you know, we’re talking about now. You never want to have to make excuses. We’re justifying what happened.”
correction: A previous version of this story said Maximum Security had been claimed in December.
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