Kentucky Derby Controversy: Did The Track Made The Right Call?

Kentucky Derby Controversy: Did The Track Made The Right Call?

Kentucky Derby 2019

Last weekend was a tumultuous one in the world of horse racing. While all eyes turned to Churchill Downs for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, fans and bettors were stunned when the unofficial winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference, resulting in a 65-1 shot, Country House, taking the roses as the winner.

Though the decision was disappointing for the connections and fans of Maximum Security, the unpopular decision was likely necessary for horse racing to survive.

How racing avoided one of the worst catastrophes in history

Maximum Security clearly drifted out several paths in the turn of the race. It does not matter why he did, or that he did not cause an accident. It does not mean that the jockey was at fault, or that the move was intentional. It simply means that the action was unsafe — it jeopardized the safety of the horses around him, and cost horses behind him a better placing in the race.

Had jockey Tyler Gaffalione and his mount, War of Will, not been able to react with agility and athletic control to avoid clipping heels and going down on the track, a massive multiple horse accident could have occurred. There were 18 horses behind Maximum Security, tightly bunched in the final turn on a wet track, ready to fall like dominos had one horse in the front fallen in front of the pack.

Safety first

Putting the safety of all racing participants first is paramount. Regulators, track operators and horsemen must prioritize safety above all else.

Safety of racing participants includes all horses, but also all jockeys, the remarkable and often underrated human athletes of the sport.

Horse racing has been in the spotlight this year for all the wrong reasons. Tragically, 23 horses have died in the span of a few months at Santa Anita, one of the premier racing venues in the United States. Unseasonable wet weather wreaked havoc on a drought-resistant racing surface at the Southern California track. The degree to which track surface played a role in these deaths is unknown; what is known is that the fatalities ended, save one, after the weather and track returned to normal.

Given the national attention the industry has received and the microscope under which it operated leading up the Kentucky Derby, it was more important than ever to continue to uphold rules and regulations that put safety first and continued to protect the racing participants.

Alternate scenarios – what if?

There are many who do not agree with the decision to take Maximum Security down. However, viewing the slow-motion footage of the incident makes it difficult to deny that he was not clear of the horse behind him when he changed paths. For a few terrifying seconds, the front legs of War of Will were intertwined with those of Maximum Security, their strides interlocked like teeth on two gears.

Perhaps it is the circumstances of the horses in question that cause people to doubt the decision. Country House was the longest price on the board at 65-1, while Maximum Security, until shortly before the race, had been the betting favorite.

What if the horses had been reversed, and it had been Country House in the lead who caused the infraction, resulting in Maximum Security being placed first?

What if another horse had benefitted from the disqualification, and the post-time favorite and Bob Baffert trainee Improbable had been in second place and therefore were placed first?

What if War of Will had actually fallen as a result of the infraction? What if the horse or rider had been injured, or caused an accident to another horse?

If any of the above scenarios seem more deserving of a disqualification, that is incorrect. Interference is interference, regardless of the odds, connections or results of the race.

Stewards: the racetrack referees

Just as all professional sports have rules that govern the leagues and games, horse racing is subject to its own set of rules and regulations.

Racing rules are upheld by stewards, the referees of the racetrack. Three stewards preside over each racetrack in the United States and are responsible for the conduct of the race meeting in accordance with all laws and rules of the state.

Stewards are ultimately tasked with protecting the safety of all participants and ensuring the integrity of the wagering contest. While much of their work is behind the scenes, they are also visible as the referees of live racing on race days observing the running of each actual race.

Stewards are highly qualified and trained individuals with years of experience in their role as well as in other facets of the industry. They complete an intensive training program held annually through the Racing Officials Accreditation Program on racing and medication rules and legal processes, culminating in written and oral exams that are the racing equivalent of taking the bar exam.
Additionally, they must meet certain requirements for hours served and complete continuing education courses throughout their careers.

Inquiry or objection

Immediately following the running of a race, stewards may announce that there is an inquiry into the running of a race if they see anything that they feel warrants further review. The stewards’ stand offers good visibility to the track and they are equipped with multiple television monitors and video feeds, often from different angles than what the public spectator may see.

Inquiries do not always result in disqualification.

An objection is a claim of foul made by a participant of the race to the stewards. It can be a jockey or a trainer of an entry in the race and must be made before the race is official. Stewards listen to the objection and also talk to the rider of the horse that the objection was lodged against.

Like inquiries, not all objections result in a disqualification.

What are the Kentucky Horse Racing Rules for interference?

The rules regarding a racing foul in the Kentucky Administrative Regulations, Title 810, Public Protection Cabinet – Kentucky Horse Racing Commission are as follows:

Section 12. Fouls. A leading horse if clear is entitled to any part of the track. If a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause the same result, this action shall be deemed a foul. If in the opinion of the stewards a foul alters the finish of a race, an offending horse may be disqualified by the stewards.

The actions of the stewards regarding the interference and subsequent disqualification of Maximum Security follow the rules outlined in Kentucky Administrative Regulations. Maximum Security was the leading horse in the race, swerved to the side and interfered with multiple horses in the race.

The offending horse did impact the ability of War of Will but even worse, Long Range Toddy, who was forced to check badly in the incident. This explains why the stewards chose to place Maximum Security behind Long Range Toddy, the horse who finished worst of all horses with whom he interfered.

High profile disqualifications

Disqualifications are a part of the horse racing game. They are not common, and they are less common in stakes races, such as the Kentucky Derby, but they do happen. When they happen in these events, they tend to be higher profile situations.

Another example of a disqualification in stakes race was a controversial decision made in the $700,000 Beverly D. Stakes (G1) at Arlington, in Chicago, on the day of the prestigious Arlington Million. The race involved some of the top older fillies in mares in the country on the turf. The horse who finished first, Secret Gesture, was disqualified from first and placed third.

Sometimes taking no action is worse than taking action in an inquiry or objection. The now-infamous decision in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many horseplayers.

Bayern, the winner of the race, broke out badly at the start and ran into post-time favorite and likely winner Shared Belief, who was knocked immediately off-stride. He had a late start but made up ground to finish fourth. The stewards examined the running of the race but determined that there had been no true foul committed.

Did horseplayers really lose millions?

Following the race, it has been suggested that horseplayers lost money as a result of the disqualification, to the tune of $9 million. This is not entirely accurate.

Only pari-mutuel wagering is allowed on horse racing in the United States. Under the rules for pari-mutuel wagering, the odds of the runners in a race are determined by the percentage of the total pool that have been wagered on them. The track or operator takes a fixed and pre-determined amount, called the takeout, of the pool. Then, the remainder of the pool is paid out to the bettors according to the odds of the finishers.

Horseplayers, overall, did not lose money in the Kentucky Derby. Yes, those who bet Maximum Security lost money on their bets, but the total amount of money that would have been paid out to his backers were simply redistributed to those who had bet on Country House. By definition, less money had been wagered on him to win in the pool; that is why his odds were high and why people who did bet him received more money than those who would have cashed a Maximum Security win ticket.

Country House – still a deserving winner

Country House is a surprising winner of the Kentucky Derby, but he is still a deserving one. The colt competed in the Arkansas Derby, a Grade 1, $1,000,000 prep race at Oaklawn Park that has become one of the most challenging prep races and has produced Kentucky Derby winners Smarty Jones and American Pharoah. He finished third in the race behind Omaha Beach and Improbable. Earlier this winter, he finished second to War of Will in another race. He earned his way into the Kentucky Derby and had already demonstrated that he belonged with that company of horses.

At the end of the day, it is in the best interest of the sport to acknowledge that an infraction took place and the right action was taken to help preserve the integrity of the sport for the future. We can come together to congratulate the winner, accept defeat of the horse many had backed, and prepare to handicap these 3-year-olds for the rest of the season, as it appears to be one of the better crops of young talent in recent years.