The Week in Review: Remember the Context of 2019 Derby DQ


Aftermath of 2019 Derby | EquiSport photo


After a federal appeals court on Friday upheld a district court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit that sought to reverse the disqualification of Maximum Security (New Year's Day) from first place in the 2019 GI Kentucky Derby, co-owner Gary West told TDN that even though he disagreed with the ruling, “it is time to move on and the decision will not be appealed.”

Country House (Lookin At Lucky), of course, has been considered the winner of the 2019 Derby ever since he was elevated from second to first via the DQ process. So this latest judgment changes nothing regarding the already-official results.

The court ruling also does not mean that the Churchill Downs stewards got the call right. The three-judge panel simply affirmed that the plaintiffs had no legal basis to challenge the outcome.

What the ruling does mean is that another precedent will get entered into the law books underscoring how hard it is (and should be) to get a judge in a court of law to overturn a field-of-play ruling by an umpire, referee, or board of stewards.

And the decision by Gary and Mary West to not pursue further legal action does finally lift the miasma of litigious dread that descends whenever sports and the courts collide.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (whose members and executive director Marc Guilfoil were defendants in the lawsuit along with chief state steward Barbara Borden, state steward Brooks “Butch” Becraft, and Churchill Downs steward Tyler Picklesimer), issued a statement after the Aug. 28 judgment in which Guilfoil said the stewards' decision to DQ Maximum Security was “an easy call to make, but a tough day to make it on.”

An “easy” call? I respectfully disagree.

Easy DQ calls in stewards' booths don't take 22 minutes to adjudicate. Nor do they customarily keep getting debated 16 months after the fact.

To this day you can find a balanced mix of supporters and detractors on both sides of the Derby DQ decision. It was a difficult call then and it remains difficult now even with the benefit of hindsight. Let's not revise history to make it seem otherwise.

As the 2019 Derby gets nudged into the rear-view mirror, it's important not to lose focus of what was happening on the macro level within our industry when the Churchill stewards decided to make the first disqualification of a winner for an in-race foul in 145 runnings of the Derby.

No sports official (or board of stewards) ever wants to be the arbiter whose judgment call alters the outcome of a big game or race. In America, there's always been an unwritten rule that officials “let the players play” in crucial contests, even though referees, umpires, and stewards rarely admit it.

Coupled with that, the Kentucky Derby itself has always had a high bar when it comes to whether or not the stewards could or should step in to alter the running order. This dates at least back to the 1933 “Fighting Finish” in the pre-replay era, when Brokers Tip nosed Head Play after their jockeys grabbed and whipped each other in the stretch run. A foul claim by the runner-up rider was dismissed and the result stood, although both jockeys were later suspended 30 days each.

In more modern times, the 20-horse Derby has become known as an anything-goes cavalry charge into the first turn in which jockeys know they have considerable leeway to ride with more assertiveness because the stakes are so high.

But 2019 was the year when the Derby was run under shell-shocked circumstances because the sport was reeling in the wake of the 30-horse fatality crisis that shut down racing at Santa Anita Park. Tracks nationwide were under intensified scrutiny, and in the week leading up to the Derby, the sport was being called out and protested against over equine safety issues.

   It was impossible to ignore the national headlines that blared “Horse Deaths Are Haunting the Racing World Ahead of the Kentucky Derby” (Time magazine), “At the Kentucky Derby, Prayers for a Safe Race” (New York Times) and “Horse Safety at the Kentucky Derby has officials 'On the Edge of a Razor Blade'” (Louisville Courier-Journal).

In fact, Guilfoil himself told the Courier-Journal the day before the before the 2019 Derby that, “We realize we're under a microscope.”

So while a subconscious “Let 'em play” mindset might have previously been the unspoken norm for officiating a big race, the over-arching context of the 2019 Derby was rooted in the hyper-aware context of safety.

As the nation watched slo-mo replay after replay of the narrowly averted pile-up off the far turn in the Derby, the Churchill stewards surely, at some level, must have recognized that if they didn't make a call that doled out punishment for the near-disaster, it wouldn't mesh with the safety-centric image the industry had been trying to hammer home on many levels.

Did they get the call correct? That's always going to be up for debate.

But let the record reflect that Maximum Security's historic DQ was as much a product of the sport trying to come to grips with the enormous pressures of maintaining safety in an inherently dangerous setting as it had to do with the colt's shifting and drifting while leading the pack off the final turn in the Derby.

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