Sloppy Track, Muddy Finish
This was a busy weekend, what with May the Fourth, Cinco de Mayo, and the Kentucky Derby all taking place. The derby, as you may have heard, ended in controversy when the winning horse was disqualified and placed 17th. It was a result that outraged horse-racing fans, including Donald J. Trump, who (you won’t be surprised to hear) took to Twitter in protest.
“It was a rough and tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch,” the president tweeted. “Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby -- not even close!”
Notwithstanding his perplexing allusion to political correctness, the First Fan is right: Country House, the long shot who finished second and was awarded the win, was no match for front-running Maximum Security, the colt who crossed the finish line two lengths in front. So how could a horse be taken down after leading the field the entire way?
I’ll answer that question in a moment, while also reprising the finish of the 1933 Kentucky Derby, which was every bit as contentious as this year’s, in a moment.
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If the president of the United States thinks horse racing is rough and tumble now, he should have been at Churchill Downs on this date in 1933. That race, known as the “Fighting Finish,” featured two jockeys in hand-to-hand combat as they crossed the finish line. It was a dispute they resumed in the jockeys’ changing room with their fists, a rumpus finally broken up by sportswriters and other riders.
The fracas started during the stretch run, a bit later in the race than this year’s trouble, when 18-year-old jockey Don Meade sent his horse Brokers Tip through a narrow opening on the inside, pulling alongside front-running Head Play. Herb Fisher, the 22-year-old rider aboard Head Play, didn’t appreciate Meade’s shortcut, and he pinned Brokers Tip on the rail. Meade pushed Fisher away, and soon both riders were whipping and pushing each other. Fisher tried to pull Meade off by grabbing his saddlecloth; Meade grabbed Fisher by the arm, which is how they crossed the finish line.
Although the technology was available (and can still be accessed), Churchill Downs didn’t use photos to determine the winner in those days, and the stewards awarded the victory to Brokers Tip. This result outraged Herb Fisher, who believed (a) that his mount crossed the finish line first; and (b) Meade had fouled him in any event, and should have been taken down.
It didn’t happen, though, and such an outcome wouldn’t take place until May 4, 2019.
The short answer to the stewards’ stunning decision at Churchill Downs on Saturday is that horses are required by the rules of thoroughbred racing to stay in their lane, even though no such lane markings exist. They can switch paths, but only without endangering other horses or impeding their progress. But as Maximum Security rounded the final turn and headed into the stretch, he did both. With jockey Luis Saez aboard, the horse suddenly drifted outward into the path of War of Will, who was making his move.
Trying to avoid a collision, War of Will’s rider, Tyler Gaffalione, reined his horse to the right, causing him to bump Long Range Toddy, who was also surging forward. Country House, outside of them both, veered away from trouble, and was uncompromised. So, it was a foul on Maximum Security, but here’s where things get subjective. Did it impact the result of the race? If so, what’s the proper remedy?
To me, the answer to the first question was clear: No, it did not change the outcome of the race. Yes, Long Range Toddy was checked briefly, but that horse, who didn’t really belong in the derby, faded to 17th -- in a 19-horse field. War of Will also didn’t “want the distance,” as they say in racing, and finished eighth. The best horses finished 1,2,3,4.
So why did Maximum Security veer outward? This often occurs with tiring horses. It also happens sometimes on sloppy footing, which was the condition of the Churchill Downs track on Saturday. Luis Saez himself thought his 3-year-old horse, which he described -- not unsympathetically -- as “a baby,” veered outward when he heard the roar of the crowd of 150,000 people.
Whatever the cause, it was dangerous, and it came at a time when thoroughbred racing is under tremendous scrutiny because of horses breaking down on tracks and being euthanized. (Come to think of it, this is what President Trump must have been alluding to with his aside about “political correctness.”)
But when it came to Maximum Security’s foul -- and it was a foul -- what should the racing stewards have done about it? They could have fined the jockey or suspended him for some period of time for “careless riding,” which are remedies often applied. But here was the problem: No one blamed Saez for what happened. His horse veered out suddenly on a muddy track, and just as suddenly, the rider corrected it. He’s not known as a reckless rider; quite the contrary. And he knows the dangers of his sport as well as anyone: Four-and-a-half years ago, his younger brother -- a 17-year-old apprentice jockey -- was killed in a spill on an Indiana racetrack.
What the three Churchill Downs stewards should have done in my opinion was say a silent prayer of thanks that the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby produced a worthy champion who made one misstep -- and that his error didn’t result in disaster. Instead, they took 22 minutes to take the horse down, inexplicably placing Maximum Security 17th behind Long Range Toddy; then they waited another two hours to read a written statement, and took no questions.
It seemed like a travesty to millions of fans, and it cost me a lucrative exacta payout. But at least it didn’t end in a brawl in the jockeys’ room.