LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This has not been horse racing’s finest hour: dead horses at Santa Anita Park and consternation among horse people that they can treat their athletes better but have failed to do so. It’s little wonder then that the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday ended in astonishment, controversy and confusion.
The Kentucky Derby, much like the Super Bowl, has become a place to see and be seen. Celebrities and wealthy people are everywhere, making the weekend a party with a race as the main distraction. On Saturday, Maximum Security won America’s most famous race on the track. Until he didn’t. For the first time in the history of the race, the horse who crossed the finish line first was disqualified for interference and stripped of his title, before a stunned crowd of more than 150,000.
By all appearances, Maximum Security had outrun the field, remaining unbeaten and giving a hard-knocking trainer from the Mid-Atlantic, Jason Servis, and his up-and-coming jockey, Luis Saez, their first Derby victories.
But there was a problem — a big one. Maximum Security had jumped a puddle on the rain-soaked track and slid to the outside, not only impeding the progress of a rival, War of Will, but also forcing that colt’s rider, Tyler Gaffalione, to squeeze his knees and wrangle the reins just to stay aboard.
So the racing stewards went to watch the video for five minutes, then 10 minutes, then nearly 22.
“Leave it to the racing gods,” an increasingly anguished Servis said as he awaited the stewards’ decision.
Not far away, Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame trainer, looked on placidly. His colt, Country House, had finished second. Mott was trackside and said on national television what horseplayers know, dread and curse on a regular basis.
“There was definitely a foul in the race,” Mott said. “If this was a maiden claimer on a weekday the winner would come down.”
Down came Maximum Security and up went Country House, a 65-1 improbable victor. It was not a popular decision, but it was a brave one that is certain to keep a battered old sport in the national consciousness for a little bit longer. Never before had a foul voided an apparent win at the Derby. One other horse has been stripped of victory: In 1968 a failed drug test led to the disqualification of Dancer’s Image days after the race, when Forward Pass was named the winner.
This was the first Derby triumph for Mott, a horseman revered among his peers for being “half-horse,” as it was for Flavien Prat, a Frenchman who is now based in California. He has learned his lessons well here because it was his objection that set off the video scrutiny and ultimately changed (and made) history.
After Maximum Security finished one and three-quarter lengths in front of Country House, it appeared the racing officials had either not seen the purported foul or did not think Maximum Security had kept a better horse from winning.
But Prat protested — it is called an objection in racetrack parlance — meaning that the officials had to hear from him what happened and review the video. It was a crafty request, especially after Prat acknowledged that it was doubtful he and Country House were ever going to catch Maximum Security.
“It kind of turned me sideways,” he said. “It was at the quarter pole and affected my momentum.”
Mott, however, was more diplomatic about his rider’s complaint.
“It may have affected it slightly, but it affected two other horses dramatically,” he said.
Barbara Borden, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, would not take questions about the stewards’ decision, but said that they had determined that Maximum Security had “drifted out” and impeded Country House as well.
The stakes were already high on Saturday for a declining sport that has quickly become an endangered one. Twenty-three horse deaths over a three-month span at Santa Anita Park in Southern California shut down racing there and produced calls to ban the sport.
Here at Churchill Downs, 43 thoroughbreds were lost to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average during the same time.
So it was with racing hearts and fraught nerves that the crowd of 150,729 sent off the field of 19 horses on a rainy day that left the racetrack as sticky as peanut butter and the horses and riders determined to find safe and strategic footing.
It looked like Saez had guided Maximum Security to a winning path. He had the only undefeated horse in the field, and they bounded out of the gate and led the way into the first turn. The plan was to rocket Maximum Security to the lead and make the others catch him. If they could.
He was in front through a fast half-mile of 46.62 seconds. Behind him, Prat and Country House were splashing along unhurried in eighth place. As Maximum Security turned for home, he skipped over a puddle, banging War of Will and setting off a chain reaction that broke the stride of Code of Honor and a couple of others.
“My horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little,” Saez said.
Mott believed him.
“I don’t think Luis Saez did anything intentionally. He is an inexperienced horse,” said Mott, who considers Saez a friend.
The trainer also knows Servis well.
“My heart actually aches for them, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “I’ve been on the other end of it plenty of times, but just not in the Kentucky Derby.”
As for Servis, he went from celebrating the biggest victory in his career to something close to despair. His younger brother John won this race with Smarty Jones in 2004 and now he was about to join him in the record books as the only brothers to train Derby champions.
“I’m just trying to hold it together,” he said on television after he thought he had won.
But the three stewards and, yes, the racing gods, decided he, Saez and a game Maximum Security belonged in the record books.
“It’s tough,” Servis said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it will.”
Bettors call what Servis and Saez — and often themselves — endure a tough beat. This may be one of the toughest of all, one that the most casual horse fan will be talking about for years to come.
Alas, it was someone else’s day.
The record book will say that Country House won the mile-and-a-quarter race and collected a $1.86 million check for his owners and paid a whopping $132.40 for a $2 bet.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mott said. Then he paused, and a smile crept into the corners of his mouth. “You always want to win with a clean trip and have the horse recognized as the great athlete that he is. So yeah, it diminishes it. I know they had a very tough decision. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. With all that said, I’m damn glad they put up our number.”