By Tom Jicha

Racing's horrible year reached its nadir with the Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security. If you adhere to "a rule is a rule," it was justifiable. But if "a rule is a rule" were applied in every race, every day, there would be inquiries in almost every race and numerous DQ's every day. Given the import of the event and the conditions in which the race was run, Maximum Security should have been afforded some benefit of the doubt. As it is, we have arguably the most unworthy Derby winner in history and a Preakness that will not have any of the first three Derby finishers--four if you count Maximum Security.

Maximum Security is paying the price for Nickell Robey-Coleman’s sin. Coleman is the Los Angeles Rams cornerback who clearly interfered with New Orleans Saints receiver Tommy Lee Lewis in the waning minutes of the NFC Championship game. The officials, who made no call on the obvious foul, were vilified by fans and media.

Churchill Downs stewards were in a similar position Saturday. They didn’t want to become the first officials to take down a Derby winner but they didn't want to become the object of scorn and derision the NFL officials were. This is why they didn’t put up the inquiry sign and why they took 22 minutes looking for ways not to change the order of finish. The attention of TV, specifically NBC, whose commentators took forceful positions against Maximum Security, forced their hand.

There is ample evidence to support this contention. Most revealingly, the stewards didn’t illuminate the inquiry sign. They had seen the same video before Flavien Prat registered an objection as after he did, standard procedure in all stewards stands. They did nothing.

Prat’s claim was borderline frivolous. His house, Country House, was one of the few in the top flight who wasn’t bothered. Prat acknowledged as much. He said he knew a lot had gone on behind him and wanted the stewards to take a look at it. If the decision had been based on whether Maximum Security had fouled Country House, it would have taken 22 seconds, not 22 minutes, to let the result stand “as is.”

In my years at the track. I’ve seen instances where the stewards changed the order beyond the expected because they saw more during the reviews than was alleged. But I’ve never seen nor heard of a foul claim made by a jockey on behalf of other horses.

This is where Nickell Robey-Coleman and TV comes in. NBC was all over Prat’s claim, as it should have been. Every replay angle they showed made it look worse for Maximum Security. They interviewed horse people, including House Call’s trainer Bill Mott, who said if this were an ordinary race on a weekday card, there is no question Maximum Security would be disqualified.

The stewards had access to the NBC feed. Indeed, NBC showed the stewards examining some of the NBC angles. If anything good is to come out of this debacle, the network showing the race should have the opportunity to have microphones in the stewards’ room.

Not wanting an encore of what happened in the Saints-Ram game, the stewards in effect reversed their initial decision in not lighting the inquiry sign. That they are lacking the courage of their convictions was sealed when they refused to answer questions from the media after the races.

There is no justification for this. If the stewards do eventually face the media to explain themselves, it will be after they have been lawyered-up and advised what to say and not say.

The bottom line is they made a justifiable disqualification but one of the worst decisions in the history of racing. The one thing that apparently wasn’t considered, but should have been given how close a call it was, is that in taking down Maximum Security, they would be elevating an unworthy winner to the top prize in racing.

Country House will stand forevermore as the least deserving winner of America’s most important horse race. He got a clean run and wasn’t good enough.

(Forward Pass, put up after a drug positive, is a separate case. Dancer’s Image’s owner, trainer and jockey got to go to the winner’s circle and savor their greatest moment and people who bet on him were paid. The result wasn’t overturned until days later when public attention had moved on.)

The “a rule is a rule” justification doesn’t stand up to analysis. Whether it be in courtrooms or stewards’ stands, discretion is applied every day. Mitigating factors are considered in dispensing punishment. Maximum Security was egregiously over-punished. I have yet to hear anyone argue he wasn’t the best horse in the Derby. A hefty fine against Luis Saez would have been sufficient.

If “a rule is a rule” was applied to every race every day, there would be inquiries and disqualifications several times every day.

The most prominent but far from the only example is “an incident at the start.” More horses have their chances compromised or eliminated soon after the break than at any other point in a race. Yet “a rule is a rule” is almost never applied.”

When police unions have a hair up their behinds in contract disputes, one of their favored tactics is to do everything exactly according to the rules. It brings essential police work to a screeching halt.

I hope everyone espousing the “rule is a rule” stance never gets a speeding ticket for driving one mph over the limit. A rule is a rule, after all.

The stewards also were destroying this year’s Triple Crown series. If Country House, who subsequently was taken out of Preakness consideration with a cough, had stayed in and won the Preakness and Belmont, the Triple Crown would have been irreparably tarnished. So it’s just as well he’s not running next Saturday.

The argument that Maximum Security’s disqualification would have been an easy, non-controversial call in a mundane race doesn’t hold up, either. There aren’t 19 horses scrambling to get traction on a treacherously slippery course in a mundane race on a weekday. There aren’t 150,000 screeching voices, a situation these young horses have never encountered, in a mundane race. Moreover, the jockey on the horse most significantly bothered, Tyler Gaffalione on War of Will, didn’t claim foul. That NBC wasn’t able to get him on camera, given how long the review went on, was an egregious shortcoming.

Most significantly, the Kentucky Derby is not a mundane race. Minstrels don’t sing of mundane races, “It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.” The only chance.

Maximum Security, inarguably the best horse, deserved some benefit of the doubt. He got none.

Could this year get any worse for racing, from the Santa Anita tragedies to a divisive controversy at the Derby and now neither of the winners, the one who won on the track and the one put up by the stewards, will be running in Baltimore. Neither will the declared place and show horses, Code of Honor and Tacitus. I couldn’t find the last time the first three horses in the Derby—four if you include Maximum Security--skipped the Preakness.

Coming off the highest Derby TV ratings since 2001—the estimated 16.5 million viewers made it the most watched telecast of the week, including all prime-time programs—I cringe at what the drop off will be for a Preakness even avid fans will care little about.

Hey, want some Belmont Stakes tickets cheap?