They will talk about this for years, much like they’ve talked about Codex’s veering into Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness. In that race, the stewards decided to uphold the results; Codex was the winner, the Derby champion, Genuine Risk, was second.
If you’re old enough to have watched that race, the ABC broadcasters were Jim MacKay and Howard Cosell. The color commentator was Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro. Cosell asked Arcaro the point-blank question: “If you were a steward what would you do?”
Arcaro’s response: “I’d take the number [Codex] down.”
Fast forward to the 2019 Kentucky Derby when Maximum Security veered ever so slightly, but enough to make contact with War of Will, who then impeded Long Range Toddy. I didn’t think they’d take Maximum Security down for several reasons:
1) He was clearly the best horse in the race.
2) The objection came from jockey Flavien Prat, whose horse, Country House, didn’t appear to be affected by the action.
3) It’s the Kentucky Derby — there are millions watching at home along with 150,000+ at the track and, unless the infraction is egregious, the result is going to stand.
But we live in different times. There has always been replay in horse racing, but it is so good today that officials want to make the right decision. They will look at a replay a thousand times before making the call. Old-schoolers like me detest this — we believe that if it isn’t clear after a few looks, a change should not be made.
As the stewards were watching the replay, the clock ticked and ticked. I thought the decision would come quickly — a few looks and then the official call with Maximum Security on top, Country House second. But the minutes kept passing and usually that means a change is coming. Certainly Prat thought so.
“It took a quite a long time,” the Frenchman said, “and usually when it takes so long, it’s a good sign.”
For Prat, it was a good sign, as his horse was declared the winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby. And while it didn’t look like Maximum Security’s veering affected Country House, Prat believed it did.
Prat said that Maximum Security “drifted out,” made contact with other horses, which in turn interfered with his horse. He said because of this, his horse lost momentum.
Replays don’t appear to show that, but because things happen quickly, it’s hard to tell what exactly went on. Trainer Bill Mott was trying to be diplomatic when he was interviewed, but it was clear he wanted the win.
Mott claimed that if this was an allowance race on a Tuesday afternoon, the horse would be taken down in “three minutes.”
Again, I don’t agree. Very few watch those Tuesday afternoon allowance races, so often the results stand. That doesn’t mean there aren’t takedowns; there certainly are, but this isn’t the fourth at Parx on a Tuesday — this is the Kentucky Derby.
The last thing we want to see is a sporting event in the hands of the judges. Nobody wants to see a game decided by replay or by an official’s error. In the 1985 World Series, we saw umpire Don Denkinger blow a call that helped the Kansas City Royals win game 6 and then, the next night, they won game 7 to become champions.
In the 2018 NFC Championship Game, we saw officials not make a call on what many thought was obvious pass interference. That non-call likely cost the New Orleans Saints the NFC title and a shot at a Super Bowl one.
But those cases are different than what we saw in the Derby. In 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals still had a chance to get three outs before the Royals scored two runs. In the NFC Championship Game, the Saints had a three-point lead after kicking a field goal. They had a chance to stop the Rams and, in overtime, they had a chance to score after winning the coin toss. Instead, they threw an interception and permitted the Rams to get in position to kick a game-winning field goal.
In the Derby, there is only one, two-minute opportunity. Maximum Security executed an almost perfect game plan. He got to the lead and, when he faced pressure, he was able to pull away for the apparent victory. But the key phrase here is “almost perfect.”
Like Codex in 1980, he did veer, but was it enough to get him disqualified? I didn’t think so, but others did and, in the end, the only opinions that mattered were those of the three stewards watching from the racing office.
And this is where social media ruins it. Those that think the decision was just, scream and yell that they’re right, while those that disagree scream and yell that they’re right. In the end, nobody wins. We don’t acknowledge the other side anymore.
In 2019, it’s more important to be right then anything else, but you know what? It’s not that important to be right.
Tragedy was avoided. We were lucky that Maximum Security’s veering did not cause an eight-horse pile up. War of Will may not be the Derby champion, but he certainly showed us his athletic prowess by not going down. The last thing the sport needed was horses injured and laying all over the track. Thankfully, that was avoided and, because it was, you could make the case to let the result stand. On the other hand, if there was indeed, a clear violation, then the right thing needs to be done. The stewards thought the violation was clear and they took action.
It’s been a tough winter and early spring for the Sport of Kings. Over the winter, 23 horses died at Santa Anita and, now, a tainted Derby. The sport needed a clean one and it didn’t get one. What makes it worse is that 95 percent of the people were watching their only horse race of the year. If they’re mad enough, they’re not coming back and that’s something the sport doesn’t need to hear or see.
But maybe the Derby itself is to blame. Why is it that the Derby allows 20 starters while every other major stakes race caps starters at 14? The simple answer — it’s the Kentucky Derby and anybody who owns a racehorse wants in. The pride and prestige of having a Derby starter feeds the ego and keeps people in the game. But, in an era of increased safety in all sports, should the Derby pare back to 14? Look at the NFL. It cut overtime from 15 minutes to 10 and is thinking about eliminating kickoffs. If pro football — the most popular sport in America — can make changes, why can’t the Kentucky Derby?
Would a 14-horse field have prevented Maximum Security’s veering? Probably not, but, with just 14 horses, there would be more room to run, especially at the beginning when everybody is trying to establish position. With 20 horses, you’re just asking for trouble and you almost got it today.
The Derby should be a time for celebration. There are few American events left these days. The Super Bowl is one of them, the Indianapolis 500 used to be one and, based on strong television ratings, the Kentucky Derby remains one. Saturday was a sad day for the sport; on its biggest stage, the horse that crossed that finish line first, didn’t win. It reminds me of Ben Johnson’s “win” in the 1988 Summer Olympics. He was caught doping and the runner who crossed the finish line second, Carl Lewis, was declared the winner.
With all that has happened in 2018-2019, what we needed this weekend was a Derby free of injury, tragedy, drama and controversy. We didn’t get it.
What we do have is quite a storyline heading to the Preakness. The Preakness has always had that proverbial chip on its shoulder. This year, the race has a delicious tale to tell. It’ll feature the Derby winner in Country House and, possibly, the horse that crossed the line first in Maximum Security. That should take some of the spotlight away from Pimlico, which continues to crumble before our eyes to the point that 7,000 seats will be unavailable because they were deemed unsafe.
This year, the Preakness has a great story with the controversial Derby champion against the horse looking for revenge. If we can get a clean race, the story has a chance to blossom and be one for the ages, but, right now, the sport can’t seem to get out of its own way.
That said, there have been 145 Derbies and this will be the 144th Preakness. The sport will likely outlive us all, but the last six months have not been its finest hour. Let’s hope the Preakness is all about the race and nothing more. Not only does the sport want it — it needs it.