During the turn for home at the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, Tim Keefe, a longtime thoroughbred trainer in Maryland, leaned down and nudged his daughter, who was watching beside him.
Maximum Security, the front-runner, had lurched outside two or three paths from his spot just off the rail, and Keefe saw the effect right away. Another horse, War of Will, pulled up and steadied. Long Range Toddy did the same and tracked outside, desperate for more space. All of this also impacted another horse, Country House.
“From my point of view, I saw something right away,” Keefe said. “I said to my daughter, there’s going to be an objection afterward.”
Two jockeys — including Flavian Prat, who was riding Country House — agreed, and after a 22-minute review, the three stewards at Louisville’s historic Churchill Downs racecourse did, too.
Country House was named the winner of the 145th Run for the Roses. Maximum Security, who had crossed the finish line first, was disqualified.
It was the first time in the race’s history that the horse that finished first has been disqualified for an infraction. The ruling confused the 150,729 spectators who saw the race in person and millions more who watched the broadcast.
A foul, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, is “any action by any jockey or driver that tends to hinder another jockey or any horse in the proper running of the race.”
“A leading horse when clear is entitled to any part of the track,” the rule states. “Except in a straight-away racing, every horse must maintain position as nearly as possible in the lane in which it starts. If a leading horse, or any other horse in a race, swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with or intimidate or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause same, it is a foul; if a jockey strikes another horse or jockey, it is a foul. If in the opinion of the stewards, a foul alters the finish of a race, any offending horses may be disqualified by the stewards.”
A jockey lodges an objection immediately after the race by alerting stewards. Stewards can interview jockeys to hear what happened on the course and consult replay reviews to make a determination.
Trainers, too, can ask stewards to delay certifying a race’s results official, if they’re concerned their horse might have been fouled. Keefe has phone numbers for stewards at Laurel Park in Maryland, his home racetrack, saved on speed dial, he said, in case he’s not able to communicate with his jockey immediately after a race.
But right away, Bill Mott, Country House’s trainer, knew Maximum Security impeded his horse.
“If it was a maiden claimer on a weekday, the winner would come down,” Mott said before stewards declared his horse the winner. “And it’s not supposed to matter — Kentucky Derby or whatever it is. There’s a couple of riders that nearly clipped heels and went down in there.”
Barbara Borden, the chief steward for the state of Kentucky, said in a statement that the riders of Long Range Toddy and Country House each lodged objections against Maximum Security. The disqualification decision was unanimous, she said.
“We determined that the 7 horse [Maximum Security] drifted out and impacted the progress of No. 1 [War of Will], in turn interfering with the 18 [Long Range Toddy] and 21 [Bodexpress],” she said. “Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference.”
Upheld objections are not common in racing, Keefe said. Only once before have stewards sustained a Derby complaint, when 1984 fourth-place finisher Gate Dancer was disqualified for interference in the stretch with Fali Time. Stewards promoted Fali Time to fourth and dropped Gate Dancer to fifth.
The calls are often very difficult to make under the best of circumstances. With horses running and dirt flying, it can be hard to tell, even with clear video, what happened during a particularly fraught stretch of racing, and the home stretch of the Kentucky Derby is the most fraught of all.
“There are a lot of ramifications for taking the winner that finishes first in the Kentucky Derby and taking him down,” Keefe said, “but a foul’s a foul.”