Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2019

A Hard Call, But The Right One

A NOTE TO READERS: With this post On Sports and Life is stepping away from the keyboard for a brief sabbatical to attend to some personal matters. The regular posting schedule should resume within a couple of weeks. As always, thank you for reading and for your support. See you soon.

Despite their often-distinctive uniforms, such as striped shirts, which in some sports makes them the most noticeable individuals on the field, the goal of officials in all our games is to remain invisible. Their job is to call them as they see them while maintaining both order and legitimacy in the proceedings. Inevitably, circumstances arise in which that wished for anonymity is no longer possible. But no self-respecting official in any sport considers it a good outcome when the story of the day is about them.

In thoroughbred racing the officials are quite literally invisible. The team of stewards at every track is hidden away in a box overlooking the track, banks at video screens at hand. Most fans will spend a day at the races without every knowing the stewards are there, and even when if called upon to rule on the occasional objection from a rider, their deliberations are private and their decision delivered not in person but by a lighted sign on the tote board.

It is thus fair to say that Barbara Borden, chief steward of the Kentucky Racing Commission, Brooks Becraft, a second state steward, and Tyler Picklesimer, the steward for Churchill Downs, were in the last place they wanted to be last evening when they appeared before the press in the media center usually reserved for the connections of the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Led by Borden, the three were releasing a statement explaining their decision to uphold foul claims lodged by the riders of Long Range Toddy and Country House against the horse that hours earlier had been first to cross the finish line, pre-race favorite Maximum Security. In their statement the stewards said that after interviewing all the affected riders and viewing video from multiple angles, the three had unanimously agreed that as the field swept around the final turn, Maximum Security drifted out of its lane, interfering with and impeding the progress of War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress. “Therefore,” the statement said, “we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.” That decision dropped Maximum Security to 17th place, and made Country House, the horse that finished second, the official winner of this year’s Derby. At 65-1, Country House becomes the second longest shot to claim the Run for the Roses, behind only 91-1 Donerail’s improbable victory in 1913.

During the more than twenty minutes between the end of the race and the posting of the steward’s decision, NBC’s viewers saw repeated replays of the race’s decisive moment. It was clear that the favorite swerved suddenly, jumping a puddle on the rain-soaked track and drifting right from the second lane to the fifth. Horses running behind Maximum Security bunched together and jostled while trying to slow down and avoid a potentially disastrous multi-horse collision. One jockey rose in his irons, attempting to prevent disaster. That group of bumping horses grazed Country House, who was moving up even further outside. The leader’s jockey, Luis Saez, did his best to steer Maximum Security back in line and later said the horse had been spooked by the roar of the crowd.

But before he could do so the damage was done, ultimately giving Maximum Security an unwanted page in the record books of horse racing. In the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby, only 1968 Winner Dancer’s Image had been disqualified, and that took place not immediately after the race but days later based on results of a blood test for banned drugs. Maximum Security thus stands alone as the only apparent Derby champion to have its number taken down by the stewards.

The decision did not sit well with many fans, in large part because while Saez’s mount clearly swerved out of its lane and impeded several other runners, Country House received no more than a glancing blow in the mashup at the quarter pole. Awarding a Triple Crown jewel to the 65-1 longshot, who was manifestly unable to run down Maximum Security in the stretch, seemed inherently unfair to the thousands who took to various forms of social media Sunday night to voice their complaints.

But what that popular point of view does more than anything is serve as a reminder that on the first Saturday in May horse racing attracts millions of fans who pay the sport no heed for the rest of the calendar. They would be called fair weather fans except the quantity of rain that has fallen on Churchill Downs for the last two Derby’s makes the description ironic. Those fans understandably focus on which horse wins the race, or in this unique case which horses. But that is only a part of horse racing and ensuring the integrity of the saddle number on the tote board’s win line only part of the stewards’ job.

The first fact that critics ignore is that the melee in the mud took place after the field had run a mile, with the rest of Churchill Down’s long home stretch, fully one-fifth of the race’s distance, still left to be covered. We all know what happened on Saturday over that final quarter-mile. As Maximum Security and Country House ran on, War of Will faded to eighth, Bodexpress backed up to twelfth, and Long Range Toddy staggered home in eighteenth place, prior to each moving one spot with the disqualification. But it is impossible to know how much of that order of finish was because those three horses weren’t in the leader’s league, and how much was because three notoriously high-strung animals lost all interest in running after caroming off one another and, in the case of War of Will and Long Range Toddy, having to slam on their equine brakes.

Second, while winning gets all the attention in racing, it is not the only source of revenue for a horse and its connections. Just as bettors are paid out for horses that finish second, third, and in some exotic bets even fourth, so too the Derby’s purse is divided among the top five finishers. The stewards’ obligation is to protect the entire field, and their decision had a significant financial impact not just on Maximum Security and Country House, but also Code of Honor, Tacitus, Improbable and Game Winner.  But for the foul one of the interfered horses might have made that list.

Finally, that obligation to “protect” is not limited to the order of finish. It also applies quite literally. In a sport recently rocked by scores of equine deaths, ten per week last year, a rate far higher than in any other country in the world, all parties having anything to do with a race should see their most important job as bringing all the horses home safe.

Mark Caisse, the trainer of War of Will, said after the race, “I feel like a lucky man because I just got him out and jogged him and he’s perfect. The horse racing world should be happy War of Will is such an athlete because not every horse doesn’t go down there.” Asked about the disqualification, Caisse said “They had to take him down. A lot of people said the best horse won, you know, maybe he did. But we would have liked the chance. Should he have come down? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Kentucky Derby or not. The horse put people’s lives in danger, he put jockeys’ lives in danger.”

Having the three stewards in the media center Saturday evening was not what they or anyone else associated with the Derby wanted. And perhaps there is no way for the broader public to see the result as anything other than a public relations disaster. That of course is a powerful blow to a sport already teetering on the edge of viability. But the truth is that the storyline out of Kentucky Derby 145 could have been so very much worse. That’s a reality that the officials would have been dead wrong to ignore.


  1. A nice summation of this weekend’s drama, Mike. Good luck with your sabbatical and I look forward to your return.

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