The Kentucky Derby Decision Might Avert Disaster

The stewards’ ruling disqualifying Maximum Security wasn’t a “nightmare scenario”—and it could well prevent one.

Chris Landeros aboard Bodexpress (left) races Luis Saez aboard Maximum Security (right) during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby
Chris Landeros aboard Bodexpress (left) races Luis Saez aboard Maximum Security (right) during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Brian Spurlock / USA Today Sports via Reuters)

The stewards at Churchill Downs were absolutely right to disqualify Maximum Security after the talented colt drifted out at the top of the stretch and nearly wiped out the entire field in the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. In fact, what’s striking about the reaction to the ruling is that those closest to the sport have been the least surprised by it. There are plenty of things wrong about horse racing in America, but what happened Saturday at the Kentucky Derby isn’t one of them.

It looks like there will be litigation over the result, and that’s a shame. There is no way the courts of Kentucky are going to overturn what the stewards decided on Saturday and what the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission upheld afterward. Horse racing doesn’t work that way. Great deference is given to the decisions made by track officials, and no reasonable person watching the race, and knowing what to watch for, can say the stewards made a call that was arbitrary or capricious or unsupported by evidence. Maximum Security “bore out,” to use a racing phrase (“turned right” is another way to describe it), and impeded at least two horses that had a right to their chosen “lanes” of racing. Come to think of it, an appeal challenging the ruling at the track might have had a better case if stewards hadn’t taken down Maximum Security, given what the colt did.

It doesn’t matter whether Maximum Security was “clearly the best horse in the race,” as so many commentators said in the wake of the disqualification. It doesn’t matter whether the other horses the colt interfered with likely would not have won the race if it had been run cleanly. It doesn’t matter that Maximum Security was the favorite or that Country House was one of the longest of the long shots. “Anything can happen in horse racing” is a bedrock principle of the sport. “That’s why they run the race” is another. An industry that has been besieged by bad publicity lately, much of it justified, did the right thing in this instance. It deserves praise for allowing the officials and regulators on-site to use instant replay to make the right call, even if it was an extraordinarily unpopular call, given the amount of money wagered on the favorite.

Praise today, and gratitude, even though many hard choices await industry leaders. There is pending federal legislation that would take power away from tracks and local regulators and bring it to Washington. There are continuing questions about how to better empower regulators to identify and punish trainers who cheat by giving their horses illegal drugs. There are questions about how to attract younger people to a sport whose heyday came and went generations ago. As a racehorse owner and breeder, I have written at length about many of these issues before and will do so again until meaningful reform comes.

What we shouldn’t do is conflate the sport’s safety problems, which are legitimate and serious, with what happened in the Derby. And yet that is what one reporter after another, and one media organization after another, did over the weekend after the long shot Country House was declared the winner of the big race. “The Kentucky Derby That Veered Off Course” was the headline in The Wall Street Journal, above an article arguing that the disqualification “caused a nightmare scenario that the horse-racing industry couldn’t afford.”

I don’t mean to pick on the Journal. The New York Times did it, too, calling the result “unsettling,” despite the presence of Joe Drape on its staff. There is nothing “unsettling” about getting a call right. Drape knows horse racing like few other reporters at mainstream media outlets, and the poor guy seemed to spend the entire rest of the weekend trying to explain to readers, and his colleagues, what Maximum Security did, why it is considered a foul under the rules of racing, and what stewards were supposed to do about it.

Another example of this unwarranted conflation of the outcome of the race and the sport’s institutional problems came, surprisingly, from Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. She knows a great deal about horse racing and has an impeccable pedigree in sports journalism, and yet on Sunday she declared: “This entire sport is a foul.” She continued in the same vein:

Where, pray tell, was the discernible lane in all that muck and rain and screaming and flogging and young animal surging? Where is the “lane” in a sport beset by medication overuse and purse structures that incentivize racing horses even when they are hurt, in which the jockeys whip-beat their horses to the finish on a clearly unsafe wet surface the substance of farina?

Imagine what journalists would have written had Maximum Security gone down and taken the rest of the field with him! That didn’t happen. None of the horses in the Derby were injured. For that we should be grateful, not angry. Grateful the way Mark Casse feels this morning. He’s the trainer of War of Will, one of the horses that were bumped by Maximum Security as they turned for home. “If he goes down,” Casse said afterward, “horse racing would have been in the worst shape it’s ever been—ever … The horse-racing world should be happy that War of Will is such an athlete, because not every horse doesn’t go down there.”

The point here is one can be in favor of sweeping reform for the sport and also be impressed with the courage shown by those stewards in their moment of fame. Just imagine the pressure they felt in those frantic moments after the race. The clearest way to know that track officials at Churchill Downs did the right thing, the hard thing, the only thing they could do, given what we all saw with our own eyes? President Donald Trump, who doesn’t know a fetlock from a cannon bone, weighed in on Sunday to blame the altered result on “political correctness.” Not a big fan of the rules, our president is, and a front-runner if there ever was one.