Controversy In The Kentucky Derby: Did Churchill Downs Stewards Make The Right Call?

The Kentucky Derby is a spectacle with 20 3-year-old thoroughbred horses compete for a $3 million purse while 150,000 fans in hats cheer them on with mint juleps in hand. The race is the fastest and most thrilling two minutes in sports.

The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby did not disappoint, though the real excitement came after the race, when the track announcer informed the crowd that there was an objection, and the horse that crossed the wire first may not be the actual winner.

The Kentucky Derby field

The Kentucky Derby has an abundance of extremes. Up to 20 horses compete in the race, more than in any other North American race. As many as 150,000 fans could be on site, with tens of millions more watching live. Over $140 million is wagered into all the pools for all the different Derby bet types. It is a high-pressure situation for all involved.

Though there are up to 20 horses in the race, the field has been selectively narrowed down to find some of the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds in training. Kentucky Derby hopefuls compete in designated prep races that award points to the top finishers and only the top horses by total points are invited to the Derby. Horses don’t get there by chance. Entries have proven talent and ability and each one is deserving of a spot in the gate.

The incident

Maximum Security had displayed his talent at Gulfstream Park, winning his early races impressively before capturing the Florida Derby (G1), which awarded him more than enough points to enter the field. Statistically speaking, his chances in the Kentucky Derby were good – three of the previous six Derby winners had also won the Florida Derby.

However, the young colt had only raced four times and would be facing horses in the race with more experience, some who had twice as many races under their belt already. He was the only horse to have run at just one track, and he had the least experience in stakes races, where he would be likely to face a crowd.

As the field came around the final turn, Maximum Security was in the lead, as he had been throughout the race. Suddenly, he veered out and into the path of War of Will, causing a chain reaction of interference that also affected Country House and worst of all Long Range Toddy, who was forced to check badly and nearly pulled out of the race.

What caused Maximum Security to veer out? His jockey, Luis Saez, said that he thought the colt was reacting to the crows, which was certainly a sight the horse had never seen before. Saez reacted swiftly to straighten out the horse, while Tyler Gaffalione deftly maneuvered his mount, War of Will, through the near collision.

Interference or just another race?

Some contact between horses running alongside each other is natural, and horses are allowed to move over across the track if they are clear of the horses behind them. In this instance, Maximum Security was not clear of the horse behind him. He actually ran into the horse behind him. Close-up video and images of the race show War of Will craning his head and neck out of the way of the hip of the horse now in his path while the back legs of Maximum Security and War of Will ran intertwined for a few horrifying, critical strides.

Luckily, War of Will did not fall in the event, nor did any horses stumble behind him or Long Range Toddy in the incident, a miracle given the traffic, the wet and muddy track, and the possible chain reaction that could have echoed back through the rest of the entire field.

According to rules set forth in the Kentucky Administrative Regulations, Title 810, a foul is committed in the following circumstances:

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 a jockey strikes another horse or jockey, it is a foul.

Stewards have the right to disqualify a horse in this instance:

If in the opinion of the stewards a foul alter the finish of a race, an offending horse may be disqualified by the stewards.

Safety in the hands of the stewards

Racing is a surprisingly highly regulated sport. It combines a wagering contest with physical activity of humans and equines, so it is held to high standards both in terms of a fair, transparent and secure gambling operation as well as maintaining a safe environment and ensuring the health and welfare of all participants.

Everyone involved shares in the responsibility of track safety, but it is the stewards who must uphold and enforce all racing rules for the safety and integrity of the sport.

This includes monitoring the running of each horse race and interpreting the rules for its conduct. Three stewards watch every race from their vantage point high above the track, with different camera angles and video feeds as resources.

If stewards see something they think warrants a closer look, they will post an inquiry, which means there will be a delay in the race going official while they examine the race. Or, a jockey or trainer of one of the horses may call the stewards and lodge an objection into the running of the race, and the stewards will hear both sides and review the race replays.

Not all inquiries or objections result in disqualification. But when they do, the decision was made after careful consideration, multiple replays of the race from different angles, and input from those involved. The people who made the decision are highly trained specialists in their field with years of experience and a tremendous responsibility to promote safety among the horses and riders.

Historical disqualifications

Disqualifications are uncommon, but they seem to occur less frequently in high-profile races than in everyday racing across the country. When there is a disqualification in a stakes race, the impact feels greater because of the horses, connections, money, and even the potential impact on breeding demand in the future. Rarely is there agreement on these outcomes, and even when there is, there is also shared disappointment.

One disqualification happened to the most famous racehorse of all time. Secretariat suffered his only loss of his 2-year-old year because he interfered with Stop the Music in the 1972 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park and was disqualified.

Triple Crown winner Affirmed was disqualified in one of the ten duels against his rival, Alydar. Even last fall, Kentucky Oaks winner and Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl was disqualified for interference down the stretch at Parx in the $1,000,000 Cotillion Stakes (G1), giving Midnight Bisou one of her career eight graded stakes wins.

This Kentucky Derby is one that no one who watched will ever forget, and it will join the ranks of these memorable racing moments. Regardless of what else he accomplishes in his career, Maximum Security has a place in the racing history books forever.

Racing, and its horses, kive to see another day

Had any one of the horses fallen as a result of the interference, we would not be so fortunate as to be here debating whether it was the right call. We would be mourning the injuries, and possible deaths, of multiple horses. We would be praying for our injured jockeys. We would be trying to scrub the image of a multiple horse pile-up from our memory. And, we would be trying desperately to defend the sport of horse racing and the catastrophe that happened on our biggest stage.

The disqualification of Maximum Security was a disappointment, but it was a small price to pay compared to what it could have cost all of us who love the sport of horse racing.