For sports fans, it has been impossible to avoid the headlines from this year’s running of the Kentucky Derby. Everyone from industry experts to casual fans have voiced their opinion on the controversial disqualification of the unofficial winner, Maximum Security.
It was a dark and stormy day at Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May, but the day could have been much darker had tragedy struck in the 145th Run for the Roses. Considering what could have happened that day, it is time to look at the stewards’ controversial decision in the context of safety and perception.
DQ or not, Maximum Security did interfere with other runners
Maximum Security clearly drifted out several paths in the final turn of the race. He may have shied from the water on the track or was spooked by activity in the infield or the crowd on the apron. It does not matter why he made an erratic move, or that he did not actually cause an accident this time.
It does not mean that the jockey was at fault, or that the move was intentional. It simply means that the action was unsafe and it jeopardized the safety of the horses around him.
Those in the industry, including some trainers of the horses involved, agree that they are thankful that the interference did not cause an accident in the race.
Tyler Gaffalione and his mount, War of Will, reacted with agility and athletic control to avoid clipping heels and going down on the track. Had the duo not reacted so expertly, a massive multiple horse accident could have occurred.
There were 18 horses were behind Maximum Security, tightly bunched in the final turn on a wet track. Some horses were accelerating, ready for a final push. Others were tiring and beginning to fade. An incident at the front of the pack could have set off a chain reaction of fallen horses, jockeys, injuries and absolute calamity on the track.
Racing controversy in 2019
An accident involving multiple horses and jockeys would be horrifying, but on the heels of the criticism the sport has received this year, it could have been devastating to the sport itself. How could the industry defend itself after such an incident?
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. Unseasonably wet weather wreaked havoc on a racing surface designed for droughts at the Southern California track.
The degree to which track surface played a role in these deaths is unknown; though the fatalities ceased after the weather and track returned to normal.
The horse death rate at Santa Anita this winter made headlines because it was news. A fatality rate that high is unheard of in the sport. The national average fatality rate in 2018 was 1.68 per 1,000 starters, far below what happened at Santa Anita and what has rarely occurred at any other track in recent history.
Despite what people may believe, horse racing is a highly regulated sport. It is held to strict standards due to the nature of wagering contest that takes place at its facilities, with all the wagering integrity, public information, security and cash control issues that accompany any house of gambling activity. It also holds itself to strict standards to protect the safety and welfare of everyone involved in the sport.
The highest priority at any track is safety. Everyone involved in the operation of a track, regulation of the sport, and caretakers of the animals themselves must put safety first above all else.
Safety first refers to everyone who participates in the race – the horses, but also the jockeys, the fans and the employees. Jockeys put their lives in the hands of the horses they ride and the horsemen who have prepared them for the race.
Though every licensed participant in the sport shares a role in promoting and maintaining safety, stewards ultimately are tasked with upholding the rules and holding everyone accountable.
Every track has three stewards, each a highly trained, experienced individual with extensive backgrounds in the sport. They wear many hats at the racetrack as they enforce and regulate, hold hearings, and monitor the racing and wagering contest, but the one the public sees most is their role as the track referees, watching and scrutinizing each live race from multiple angles and vantage points to ensure a safe race and a fair contest.
The decision to disqualify Maximum Security was controversial. Even among those who thought it was the right decision were surprised, not because they did not expect the rule to be upheld, but because such a situation so rarely happens on such a large stage.
The incident put racing rules and those who enforce the rules in the spotlight. The stewards involved have been openly criticized by many but defended by others. The raw emotion everyone shared in the 20+ minutes it took to make the decision and carry out the disqualification speaks to how passionate racing fans are, and how touched we are by the horses, jockeys, trainers and connections we grow to love and cheer for.
It is natural to feel frustration or anger at the decision, to want the horse you are connected with to receive its deserving accolades. It is easy to lash out at the second-place horse that was the resulting winner.
But would we have all felt the same emotions had the circumstances been different?
What if it had been longshot Country House in the lead who caused the infraction, resulting in Maximum Security being placed first? Or what if another horse had benefitted from the disqualification and the post-time favorite and Bob Baffert trainee Improbable had been placed first? Would we be more likely to agree with the decision in those circumstances?
What if War of Will had actually fallen? What if the horse or rider had been injured, or caused an accident to another horse? Would that better justify the action in our minds?
The decision in each situation would have been the same, but how we react and frame it depends on our personal interests in the race and interpretation of the way we think or wish it had been.
Why did Maximum Security change paths?
Maximum Security veered out suddenly and directly in the path of another horse. But the act was not intentional or malicious. Jockey Luis Saez said his horse reacted to the crowd as the pack was coming around the final turn, facing the full brunt of the crowd ahead.
The large crowd and noise are new experiences for most Derby horses, but Maximum Security, in particular, may have been more susceptible to this stimulation. The colt had only raced four times in his career. Several horses in the field were equally lightly raced, but most had raced five, six, even eight times previously.
Maximum Security was also the only one who had only raced at a single racetrack, Gulfstream Park, and he had only raced in one stakes race, suggesting that he may not have been exposed to as much distraction and noise as his fellow runners.
Was Maximum Security or Country House the best horse?
Lack of experience does not mean that Maximum Security did not belong in the race – he earned his way into the race and is a tremendously talented young colt.
To compete in the Kentucky Derby, horses must compete in selected prep races and finish in the top four to earn qualifying points. Competition in these races is fierce, with talented Thoroughbreds shipping across the country to compete for points to get them in the gate and for an experience to help them reach the wire first. All participants earned their spot in the gate that day and any horse that won that day would have been a deserving winner.
Was Maximum Security or Country House the best horse that day? Or was it War of Will or Long Range Toddy, horses who had no chance to advance after the incident caused by the horse in the lead?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it was truly was a feat just to get to Louisville that day to compete, knowing that each horse in the race exhibited tremendous talent and ability to step onto the track. Perhaps we should be grateful that we will have the privilege of watching each of those horses continue on in their racing career, alive and sound, and that racing integrity lives to see another day.