By: Brittany Bevis
The annual running of the roses is an elaborate affair steeped in tradition. Ladies in lavishly decorated hats sip mint juleps atop Millionaire’s Row as the call of “Riders Up!” brings the horses to the track. A gentleman in his Sunday best enjoys a glass of bourbon and a cigar as he places his final bets before the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” With all the fanfare and spectacle that marks the first leg of the Triple Crown, it’s easy to overlook the fact that, at the very heart, the Kentucky Derby is a competition- a good, old-fashioned, horse race.
However, for the first time in history, the horse that crossed the finish line first was not crowned the champion. Unfair to some, justified to others, and confusing to all, the decision to disqualify Maximum Security in favor of Country House is all that anyone is talking about this week in horse news.
In a statement that was released to the media, Chief Steward Barbara Borden explained that all three stewards agreed to disqualify Maximum Security after reviewing video footage and conducting interviews with jockeys. The reasoning is that the Derby favorite had impeded the forward progress of War Of Will on the last turn, which also forced Country House to take a wider path. Maximum Security’s jockey, Luis Saez, explained that the noise of 150,729 screaming fans frightened the horse for a moment, resulting in the shift in position.
It was certainly an unprecedented move. Maximum Security is the first Derby winner to be disqualified due to interference. The only other disqualification of a Derby winner took place in 1968, when Dancer’s Image tested positive for a prohibited medication, (Denver Post, 2019). So, nearly 20 minutes after Maximum Security crossed the line ahead of the field, it was Country House, a 65-1 long shot, that was crowned the champion.
Was it the right decision?
Watching the slow motion, video footage that has been on a constant loop since the race doesn’t offer spectators with a clear answer. Jostling and rubbing happens in every horse race, so what made this move so different?
The rule that has been cited for the disqualification states, “If a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey.” After complaints made by other jockeys, stewards reviewed video footage and determined that Maximum Security did impede other horses in the field.
According to the rules of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, stewards are responsible for “all findings of fact” and decisions “shall be final and not subject to appeal.” However, the owner of Maximum Security, Gary West, told NBC’s Today Show reporters in an interview on Monday that he will be filing an appeal after being “stunned, shocked, and in total disbelief.”
West also brought up concerns that the move couldn’t have been that clear since the race stewards didn’t initiate their own inquiry but only decided to review video footage after receiving complaints from other jockeys. He also confirmed that Maximum Security will not be running in the Preakness since there is no chance to win the Triple Crown.
Joe Bianca of the Thoroughbred Daily News attempted to clarify the ruling when he spoke with CBS New York. In his view, did the best horse win the Derby? No. But, did the stewards make the right call? Yes. Not confusing at all…
Bianca explained that in horse races, a bit of drifting is allowed; but, what can elevate a move to the level of disqualification is when another horse is blocked, and the action causes it to lose ground. If the stewards believe that a move results in a horse losing all chance to win a race, a disqualification is likely.
A point was raised that the stewards may have placed more weight on this incident because it happened at a crucial point in the race, as the horses were approaching the top of the stretch. Did the stewards take that into account? Is more weight given to an infraction because it takes place closer to the wire? If the move would’ve happened earlier in the race, would we still have Country House as our 2019 Kentucky Derby Champion? No one will ever know.
What was at stake?
The $1.86 million in prize money up for grabs at the Derby is nothing compared to the amount of money bet on the race and the resulting impact a win can have on a horse’s future career. Fox Business cited that more than $6.2 million in bets were placed on Maximum Security to win, $1.5 million to place, and $1.3 million to show. The disqualification costs bettors $9 million, at the very least.
When considering the impact the win would have had on the future career of Maximum Security and will have on that of Country House, the ramifications are untold. Winning the first leg in the Triple Crown sets a horse on a path to win the most prestigious title in horse racing. But, it’s not all about the glory, publicity, and race purses. The main goal is much further down the road when the horse retires to stud and has the opportunity to pass those winning genes onto the next generation.
With some of the top racehorses commanding more than $100,000 per stud fee and covering 100 mares a year… well, you do the math. Bloomberg estimates that a stallion is typically worth about 300 times his stud fee. For example, breeding rights for the 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify, sold for a reported $75 million.
What will happen now?
As the rest of the field heads to Pimlico Racecourse in May for the Preakness and then to Belmont Park in June, Maximum Security will be resting in his stable, while Country House will make a bid for the Triple Crown. Whether you believe the disqualification was justified or not, everyone can agree that the situation is disappointing for everyone involved. The owner, trainer, and jockey of Maximum Security experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows within a 20-minute time span, when all of their hard work and preparation resulted in a win, only to have it taken away. The owner, trainer, and jockey of Country House won the race, but only after a disqualification. So, does this win, or a future Triple Crown win, mean quite as much? Bill Mott, the trainer of Country House, spoke about his first Kentucky Derby win in a press conference following the race. “As far as the win goes, it’s bittersweet. I’d be lying if I said it was anything different. You always want to win with a clean trip and to have everyone recognize the horse as the very good horse and great athlete he is. I think, due to the disqualification, some of that is probably diminished.”
Blood Horse- Country House trainer, jockey, and owners speak in Derby Press Conference.
Today- Owner of Maximum Security speaks out about disqualification.
CBS- Joe Bianca explains his view of disqualification.