By Bill Finley
After what had to be the most agonizing 20 minutes of their collective lives, the Churchill Downs stewards disqualified Maximum Security (New Year's Day) after he crossed the wire first in the 145th running of the GI Kentucky Derby Saturday and placed him 17th. It was the first time in Derby history that a horse had been stripped of the win due to an infraction on the racetrack. The beneficiary was 65-1 shot Country House (Lookin at Lucky), who was declared the winner and gave Hall of Famer Bill Mott his first win in the sport's most important race.
This is sure to go down as one of the most controversial Derbies in history. In Maximum Security, you had a horse that led 18 others across the wire and was much the best. That he impeded other horses is not why he won. He was just better than everyone else. Meanwhile, Country House, the official winner, was not bothered and nothing that Maximum Security did cost him from winning the Derby the conventional way.
Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Yet the stewards absolutely made the right call.
They did their job, and went by the rule book. They also didn't buckle under the pressure that comes with adjudicating the Kentucky Derby. They treated this as if it were a $5,000 maiden claimer at Turfway Park, which is exactly how it's supposed to happen.
Here's the Kentucky Racing Commission rule: “A leading horse if clear is entitled to any part of the track. 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, or to cause the same result, this action shall be deemed a foul.”
There's no doubt that Maximum Security, who was ridden by Luis Saez, interfered, intimidated and impeded other horses. Nearing the top of the stretch, he ducked out and knocked into War of Will (War Front), which started a chain reaction. War of Will was forced into Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy), who took up sharply. Maximum Security was placed one position behind Long Range Toddy. War of Will finished eighth and was moved up to seventh.
Neither War of Will nor Long Range Toddy had any chance of winning. At best, War of Will might have finished fifth if not bothered. Long Range Toddy was already a beaten horse when the incident occurred.
To make the story all that more strange, Flavien Prat aboard Country House claimed foul, even though his horse was not bothered. Tyler Gaffalione on War of Will, the horse who was really mugged, did not.
You can't blame the stewards. But you can argue all you want that the rules covering disqualifications in North America are all wrong.
The newly formed racing think tank, The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, covered this subject in its first ever white paper back in November. The organization explained that when it comes to disqualifications, there are two systems in place, one used in the U.S. and Canada and another used virtually everywhere else in the world.
The U.S. rules are called Category 2 rules by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA). Basically, under Category 2 rules, a horse will be taken down if it interferes with another horse and/or does something that causes another horse in the race to finish further back than it would have otherwise.
Under the Category 1 system, a horse is only taken down if the horse it bothered clearly would have finished ahead of the offending horse if not for the incident. That was not the case in the Derby.
The official IFHA Category 1 rule reads: “If, in the opinion of the Staging Authority's relevant judicial body, a horse or its rider causes interference and finishes in front of the horse interfered with but irrespective of the incident(s) the sufferer would not have finished ahead of the horse causing the interference, the judge's placings will remain unaltered.”
“In no other country in the world but the U.S. or Canada would Maximum Security have come down,” said TIF Executive Director Pat Cummings. “One hundred percent he would have stayed up.”
I had never given much thought to which system is better, but the Derby opened up a Pandora's Box. You had a deserving winner, a horse that ran the rest of the field off its collective feet, yet got disqualified because he bothered two horses that were going nowhere in the stretch. You had a horse declared the winner of the most important horse race in America who was “beaten” because he wasn't good enough. Even Mott admitted that on NBC that Country House was not bothered by Maximum Security.
This is an issue the sport needs to take a serious look at. In light of what happened Saturday at Churchill Downs, doesn't it seem like our system makes no sense? Yes, Maximum Security deserved to come down, but only because of a Kafkaesque situation that unfolded due to rules that need to be revisited.