When the stewards at Churchill Downs disqualified Maximum Security after his first-place finish at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, the decision might have seemed straightforward. The colt committed a foul on the final turn when he crossed in front of War of Will and caused trouble for two other runners. NBC’s slow-motion replays clearly showed the infraction. And plenty of people said, “The rules are the rules, and they should be enforced whether an infraction occurs in a lowly claiming race or the Kentucky Derby.”
Racing fans know issues involving interference and disqualifications are not nearly so simple. In a rough-and-tumble sport, horses regularly bump into or veer in front of one another. In most cases, the stewards take no notice and no action. (Probably nobody would have paid attention if Maximum Security had swerved in front of War of Will on the first turn.)
Stewards disqualify horses when a foul has clearly affected the outcome — or when it’s so egregious that it eliminates other horses from contention. Even then, racing officials are often reluctant to take action in big races, just as basketball or football referees don’t want to decide the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl with a whistle.
After watching video of the 145th Derby over and over, I believe the Churchill Downs stewards made a bad decision when they took down Maximum Security’s number and made Country House the official winner. Yes, there was a foul. No, it didn’t merit a historic disqualification.
On the final turn at Churchill Downs, with Maximum Security in the lead and War of Will behind him, Maximum Security veered into his opponent’s path and caused jockey Tyler Gaffalione to steady his horse. NBC commentator Randy Moss, an astute observer of the sport, said after watching the two horses’ legs get tangled, “It could have been carnage.” (Moss accordingly thought the disqualification was deserved.)
When I watch races and make notes on them, I always try to estimate how much an incident of trouble cost a horse. In this case, I estimated one length. The consequences of Maximum Security’s misdeed could have been catastrophic, but they weren’t. War of Will recovered quickly and resumed his chase of the leader. He had a virtually clear path ahead of him and a quarter mile to catch the front-runner. He accelerated and got within a length of Maximum Security, but the leader repulsed his bid, and in the final sixteenth of a mile War of Will ran out of gas. He faded to finish eighth. Without the trouble, he might have finished fifth. He would not have won.
The other colts who were involved in the chain reaction after Maximum Security’s infraction, 54-1 Long Range Toddy and 71-1 Bodexpress, were going nowhere when the incident occurred. The trouble they encountered surely cost them a higher placing, but they finished 14th and 17th and weren’t going to be contenders under any circumstances.
If Maximum Security had veered into the path of Country House, then defeated him by less than two lengths, there would have been no debate about what the stewards should do. The foul would have cost Country House a legitimate chance to win, and the resultant disqualification would have been prompt and uncontroversial.
But because Maximum Security’s infraction did not affect the outcome, disqualifying the winner was a bit like deciding the NBA Finals on a foul away from the ball.
What purpose was served by disqualifying the winner? If it was to make a statement about the importance of safety in race-riding, the stewards could slap jockey Luis Saez with a significant suspension. But Maximum Security was the best horse in the field, and he deserved to have his name in the record books. Gary and Mary West, who bred and own him, deserved the glory of a Derby victory after 30 years in the business. The bettors who thought Maximum Security was the best horse deserved to cash their wagers.
Certainly, no justice was served by elevating Country House from second place. He had a relatively easy trip in the Derby, sitting outside the leaders and avoiding most of the trouble on the turn. If he couldn’t win the Derby on his own merits, he doesn’t deserve to have the stewards declare him the winner.
Andrew Beyer was The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist from 1978 to 2016. He has written four books on racing, including “Picking Winners,” which introduced and explained Beyer Speed Figures, a rating assigned to every horse in every race in the United States.