What Was The Deal With The Disqualification In The Kentucky Derby?

by James Murphy in Horses  / May 5, 2019

  • Maximum Security appeared to win the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified after a post race inquiry was upheld.
  • 65-1 shot Country House was the beneficiary and won the Kentucky Derby.
  • This was the first time in Kentucky Derby history that a horse was disqualified for an on-track infraction.

There’s nothing worse than *thinking* you’re holding a winning ticket for a horse race only to have it rendered worthless due to a disqualification. To be sure, there are few things that feel like a profound gift from the gambling gods than when a disqualification happens to your benefit. For some reason, however, the ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ situations such as with Maximum Security in the 145th Kentucky Derby stick in your memory longer than those that work in your favor. I guess you can call this the flipside of ‘Positive Results Bias’.

The disqualification of Maximum Security appeared to be justified based on the videotape replays but even so it was difficult to take as a bettor and no doubt for owner Gary West and the rest of the horse’s connections. If this had happened in a garden variety race it would have been a non-issue, an interesting though not particularly significant footnote on the past performance data of the horses involved. Since it happened in the Kentucky Derby, however, everyone has an opinion on it. The opinions I’ve read in the horse racing media are usually informed and well argued even if I don’t personally agree with their position. The most painful reading has been commentary on the Kentucky Derby by generic mainstream sports media hacks. This downright inscrutable ‘editorial’ by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post might be the single worst bit of writing on the subject of horse racing that I’ve ever read.

Some historical context–this wasn’t the first disqualification in Kentucky Derby history. 1968 Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image was disqualified months after the race had been completed due to a medication infraction. Forward Pass was officially named the winner of the long ago completed race. In 1984, a horse named Gate Dancer was moved from fourth to fifth in the final results for an infraction similar to Maximum Security’s.

If there was something unusual about the appeal that led to the disqualification it was the source. Ultimately, Maximum Security was disqualified for interfering with the progress of War of Will. Maximum Security drifted out 500 yards before the wire and when War of Will took evasive action it also interfered with Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. The horse that was eventually named the winner of the Kentucky Derby wasn’t impeded by the interference though it was his jockey, Flavien Prat, that initially claimed foul. At the risk of oversimplification, Prat reported the foul and the examination of the race video led to the discovery of the interference with War of Will. Neither War of Will’s jockey Tyler Gaffalione or his trainer Mark Casse felt that it was worth the trouble of claiming the foul so the horse could move up from eighth to seventh.

Maximum Security’s owner Gary West was understandably upset by the turn of events but hopefully he won’t take his threatened recourse of taking it to Federal court. Under Kentucky’s state regulations there’s not really a recourse to appeal the stewards’ decision any other way:

According to Kentucky’s administrative regulations, the stewards’ decision “shall be final and shall not be subject to appeal.” The regulations also say that stewards “shall consider the seriousness and circumstances of the incident” on the track, and the rules give them wide discretion in how to determine a disqualification and the subsequent placing of horses.

It’s tough to see West making any type of coherent case. He’s not wrong that it is a bit unusual that Prat claimed foul but it’s also completely within the rules:

“I don’t think we came within 10 or 20 feet of the winner. I think it’s very bizarre that a horse that was not fouled would call a foul. I’ve never heard of such a thing. That’s kind of weird on the surface. With just the normal TV coverage that I was able to see, I couldn’t see everything that I needed to see to make an objective, honest, and fair decision.”

“I mean, if the horse did something wrong, he should come down. Period. Whether it’s my horse or somebody else’s horse. Certainly, we did not bother the winner.”

West’s statement is factually correct–Maximum Security didn’t bother the winner–but the videotape sure appears to confirm that he did bother several other horses. To have any type of chance in the Federal court system West’s attorneys would have to build a coherent case that the race stewards misapplied the rules. There’s a chance that the state’s racing commission would then consider the appeal but more than likely it would have to go to Federal court. The problem is that there’s little to suggest that stewards applied the rules incorrectly.

The racing stewards finally spoke to the media after the 14 race card had ended and didn’t take questions:

The stewards – Barbara Borden, Tyler Picklesimer, and Butch Becraft – came to the media room more than two hours after the Derby, after the last of the day’s 14 races, and read a statement but took no questions.

Borden, the chief steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, read the statement. She said the decision was unanimous. She said both Jon Court, aboard Long Range Toddy, and Flavien Prat, aboard Country House, claimed foul against Maximum Security and his jockey, Luis Saez.

She said the stewards determined that Maximum Security “drifted out and impacted the progress” of War of Will, “in turn interfering” with Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress.

“Those horses were affected, we thought, by the interference,” the statement read.

Borden said Maximum Security was placed behind Long Range Toddy because he was “the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”

Country House’s trainer Bill Mott was obviously elated at the turn of events but made this winning point arguing that the significance of the race shouldn’t influence the application of the rules or a decision to disqualify the horse:

“If it was an ordinary race on a Wednesday, I think they would have taken the winner down.”

As brutal as it is to have a winning ticket become a losing ticket in this manner, ultimately I concur with noted racing writer and the national handicapper for the Daily Racing Form–that the rules of the sport should be applied consistently whether it’s an optional claiming race or the Kentucky Derby:

“What does matter is, Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez committed a legitimate foul – on War of Will, at the very least – and they had to pay the piper for it. And what also matters is, what would universally be considered a foul in every other horse race in the United States is now also considered a foul in the Kentucky Derby. The Derby no longer has an unspoken exemption. And that is a very good thing.”

So on to the Preakness on Saturday, May 18. At this point, it looks like Country House will be there but Maximum Security won’t. Owner Gary West sounded like he’s ‘taking his ball and going home’ when he said that chances are “extremely remote” that Maximum Security would run in the Preakness.

145TH KENTUCKY DERBY EXTENDED RACE VIDEO


James Murphy

James Murphy is a preeminent authority on the international gambling industry and has made frequent appearances in the mainstream media including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly, CNBC and NPR. He has previously worked as a radio and podcasting host where he broadcast to an international audience that depended on his expertise and advice. Murphy also serves as an odds making consultant for sports and ‘non-sport novelty bets’ covering the entertainment industry, politics, technology, financial markets and just about everything else.

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