by Richard Rosenblatt
Gary and Mary West, two of the most respected owners in thoroughbred racing, seem to be the last people you’d think would get caught up in controversy.
Yet that’s exactly what happened on Saturday night the minute — and it took many of them — that the three Churchill Downs stewards disqualified Maximum Security for interference after he finished first in the Kentucky Derby and made runner-up Country House to the winner.
It’s the first time in 145 editions of the Derby that the winner was DQ’d for a foul during the race. The decision has the racing world abuzz.
While West, who thought he had won his first Derby after 40 years in the business, is promising to appeal the decision, the countdown to the Preakness (GI) at Pimlico Race Course on May 18 is on and things are moving quickly.
By late Monday afternoon, the owners appeal was denied by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which ruled the stewards’ decision is not subject to appeal.
Earlier in the day, West confirmed Maximum Security won’t run in the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown because “there’s no Triple Crown on the line for us, and there’s no reason to run a horse back in two week when you don’t have to.”
In the aftermath of the historic Derby decision, the next question is whether Country House, the 65-1 long shot (second biggest odds in Derby history) will show up at Pimlico’s Stall 40 — reserved for the Derby winner.
As of Monday morning, Country House’s Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott had yet to announce a decision. He did say his third-place Derby finisher Tacitus (moved up a spot after Maximum Security was placed 17th) would sit out the Preakness and run next in the Belmont Stakes (GI) on June 8.
With a field limit of 14 starters for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, it’s looking like a full starting gate is possible.
“Having the Derby winner, you’re pretty much forced to go into the Preakness,” Mott said the morning after the race at Churchill Downs. He added that the decision would be made after he talks to the homebred colt’s owners, Maury Shields, her nephew Guinness McFadden Jr., and LNJ Foxwoods, which is owned by Larry, Nanci and Jaime Roth.
The feeling is Country House will run in the Preakness, thus raising the possibility — if he wins — of a potential Triple Crown shot by a horse that won the Derby by DQ. If Country House passes, he would become the first Derby winner since Spend A Buck in 1985 not to contest the Preakness.
Mott was little more definitive on Monday, saying, “We’re leaning toward the Preakness, since he is the Derby winner and we don’t want to pooh-pooh the Triple Crown. We want to support that. If he’s real good and continues to do well with no issues, not worn out, all those good things, we’ll keep pecking away and going in that direction.”
Nonetheless, there’s a Classic on the line with a purse of $1 million, so why not take a shot?
Here’s the current lineup of prospects:
Improbable: (fourth in Derby): Six-time Preakness winning trainer Bob Baffert says Improbable will run in the Preakness. He might be your favorite, especially with Mike Smith aboard.
War of Will (seventh in Derby): He was the horse who was lucky to keep his balance and his rider on board after Maximum Security interfered with him.
Bodexpress: A last-minute addition to the Derby field after favorite Omaha Beach was scratched, he finished 13th in the Derby (he also was nudged in the shuffling of horses started by Maximum Security).
Sueno: Third in the Louisiana Derby (GII).
Alwaysmining: Earned automatic spot by winning the Federico Tesio at Laurel.
Anothertwistafate: Earned automatic spot by winning the El Camino Real Derby.
Signalman: Third in the Blue Grass (GII).
Laughing Fox: Earned automatic spot by winning the Oaklawn Invitational.
Owendale: Winner of the Lexington Stakes (GIII).
Mr. Money: Winner of the Pat Day Mile (GIII).
Bourbon War: Runner-up in the Fountain of Youth (GII) and fourth in the Florida Derby (GI).
While Derby runner-up Code of Honor might be considered, it’s likely Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey will take a pass.
Baffert’s two other Derby runners — Game Winner (fifth) and Roadster (15th) — are headed back to California.
Mott says running in the Preakness two weeks after the Derby is not the usual routine.
“Now we’re talking about a horse that has had quite a few races,” he said of Country House, who would make his sixth start in five months if he goes in the Preakness. “You run back in the Preakness and maybe you hit the board and maybe you don’t. … but the Triple Crown is not a normal situation. It never has been. I don’t think they should space anything out anymore. The challenge of the Triple Crown is that it’s three races close together and it takes a champion — it takes a Justify — to win those kind of things.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.