The most exciting two minutes in horse racing turned into the most controversial 22 when Maximum Security was disqualified, marking the first time in the 145-year running of the Kentucky Derby that a winner was taken down for interference. It was embarrassing, it was stunning and it was costly for those who bet on Maximum Security.

And, but for the swift actions of a couple of riders and horses, it could have been a catastrophe in what has been a horrible year for the sport.

As Maximum Security, who had led from the start of the race, moved into the home stretch, he swung wide, very nearly clipping War of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione, as well as dangerously impeding Long Range Toddy and jockey Jon Court. Granted, this is horse racing and jockeys and horses are accustomed to competing in close quarters and at high speeds. But even Court admitted, “it got pretty gnarly” and replays showed him and Gaffalione checking their horses.

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For a couple of strides, Maximum Security’s hind legs were frighteningly close to clipping the front legs of War of Will in a high-speed tangle. War of Will and Gaffalione, either by quick thinking or quick reflexes, averted a collision. Country House, the 65-1 shot who was given the victory with Maximum Security’s DQ, was safely outside the fray.

After a winter of disturbing headlines about the mysterious deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita, “Gaffalione might actually have saved horse racing from a truly awful day. His quick reaction aboard War of Will prevented a possible spill that may have taken out much of the 19-horse field,” Yahoo’s Pat Forde wrote.

It was that close. Court and Country House’s Flavien Prat were the riders who registered objections with the stewards, triggering the lengthy review. Maximum Security’s jockey, Luis Saez, explained that the horse “started getting a little bit scared” and drifted across multiple lanes down the stretch. The roar of the crowd got to him in the moment, he said, but added, “then I grabbed him and I controlled him.”

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Perhaps, but it was, as the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Watchmaker put it “a legitimate foul — on War of Will at the very least — and they had to pay the piper for it” even if it meant disqualifying the first horse across the finish line at the Kentucky Derby.

As Bill Mott, Country House’s subdued trainer, put it to ESPN, “the horse that crossed the wire first bothered two horses quite badly at the head of the stretch, just at the 5/16ths pole, and it cost those two horses any chance of hitting the board or their chance at winning a Kentucky Derby. I don’t think anybody wants to take a horse down in the Derby, but I think that due to the fact there was a foul and it cost two horses any position in the race, I think it’s something they had to do."

There was no comment from Gaffalione, but his horse appeared none the worse for wear and, despite the lost wagers and angry reactions, the racing world can be grateful all horses escaped a dangerous situation unscathed.

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