By John Pricci and Mark Berner

In a robust ruling, the Kentucky stewards suspended jockey Luis Saez 15 days for failure to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course in his ride aboard Maximum Security in Kentucky Derby 145.

As the entire nation is aware, the stewards based their decision on the fact that Maximum Security veered out dramatically causing direct interference with War of Will, which resulted in chain-reaction interference with both Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress.

The suspension is unusual in its severity. Normally, 15 days—delineated as “racing days,” which excludes traditional dark days—is reserved for occasions when the stewards believe that a rider was reckless in the handling of his mount, as to disregard the safety of competing horses and riders.

By comparison, Frankie Detorri got a one-month ban and a $20,000 fine for interference in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, Australia's biggest race, and last year William Buick got six-week suspension for rough riding in the Hong Kong Vase and a $20,000 fine from the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Kentucky stewards issued a statement saying that the suspension indeed was for "failure to control his mount and make the proper effort to maintain a straight course, thereby causing interference with several rivals that resulted in the disqualification of his mount."

By Commonwealth rule, disqualifications cannot be overturned by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission via the normal appeals process, a common occurrence in some jurisdictions. This authority is being challenged in litigation being brought by Gary and Mary West, owners of first-place finisher Maximum Security.

Saez, currently riding at Belmont Park, has a national presence at the highest levels of the sport. This year, for example, he lost out by one winner to Irad Ortiz Jr. which prevented him from winning a third straight riding title at the vaunted Gulfstream Park Championship Meet. Saez, 27-years-old on Sunday, is considered an elite rider, Jon Court’s opinion notwithstanding.

A film review of the incident took place in Kentucky on May 10 at which Saez was represented by counsel, but attorney Ann Oldfather was not allowed to address the stewards at the hearing. An administrative hearing—as Rick Dutrow learned over six years ago—is no guarantor of due process.

The Saez legal team is free to appeal the suspension in open court but very likely to no avail. Ms. Oldfather presented video evidence to the stewards that reportedly shows competing riders caused or contributed to the rough-house scenario. The stewards gave her no assurances they would even view the video according to a Bloodhorse.com report.

So many questions arise, the majority unanswered and still lingering. And there's no guarantee they will be answered satisfactorily, if at all, to wit:

Why such a harsh sentence? Was a double standard applied? Was it because the incident occurred in America’s most celebrated horse race? How, or did, 144 years of Derby non-disqualifications inform their decision?

Did the stewards take into account that Maximum Security was on his right lead before the turn incident happened, hindering Saez from doing his best to control his mount? Did the stewards believe that Saez rode recklessly, showing little or no regard to the safety of his rivals?

Did the Santa Anita situation this winter, or Churchill Downs’ breakdown statistics in 2018, which were higher than the national average, cause them to overreact by assessing a harsh penalty with the intention of send a message to all jockeys that potentially dangerous race-riding will not be tolerated going forward?

Did they think that the second, more severe contact was the result of Saez “throwing his lines away,” thereby allowing his mount to continue herding his rivals? Did Saez’s overcorrection in the stretch carelessly put Code of Honor in precarious tight quarters on the rail have a bearing on the ruling’s severity?

Given that any or all these factors might have come into play while deciding whether or not to disqualify Maximum Security, a deliberation that took 22 minutes, why did it take nine days to mete out the punishment? Was the harsh ruling meant to serve as a foundation for their defense in future litigation?

And, finally, a question for the industry: When will simultaneous audio and video be made available to all stakeholders, especially the public, while stewards at any track, not just Churchill Downs, deliberate foul inquiries?

This foul adjudication process doesn’t suggest that the actions of racing officials be made transparent; it demands as much.

ARCI on Right Track But Must Go the Distance

While the stewards in Kentucky applied the KHRC rules and meted out their punishment, the body that actually gets individual states to adopt rules, The Association of Racetrack Commissioners International, also has been busy.

ARCI issued an advisory last week concerning Lasix. It sold fear and warned of what could happen when Lasix-free racing begins. Thus far only two tracks in California have reduced Lasix use, cutting it by half. The advisory looked more like a press release issued in support of the horsemen.

ARCI should support the Lasix ban proposed by a consortium of racetracks that make up 90% of the industry’s handle and worry that its ranks which are thinning out under its current promotion to maintain the status quo.

ARCI supported the introduction of race-day Lasix in the 1980’s--and look where that has gotten the industry in just a few decades.

Now, fewer horses are bred, fewer races are run, the average starters per race are lower and in this century alone, Americans have seen 37 Thoroughbred racetracks close, which represents about 2,500 combined years of operation. The biggest to close was California’s Hollywood Park, shuttered in 2013 after 75 years of elite Thoroughbred racing.

And following the spate of breakdowns this winter at Santa Anita Park, there is concern for the continuation of racing in Arcadia. It was, and still may be, in doubt.

In 2008 in Northern California, Bay Meadows closed after 74 years of operation. Two tracks were closed in New Jersey; Atlantic City Race Course in 2015, after 69 years, and Garden State Park in 2001, after 59 years of existence.

Six racetracks, each with over 100 years of racing, and two more, with 96 years each, also closed; most notably Rockingham Park in New Hampshire in 2009 after 103 years and Playfair Race Course in Washington in 2001. They raced at Playfair for a century.

Thoroughbreds are permitted to race in 38 states but only 30 have racing--and some of those only conduct racing so that their casinos can remain operational the rest of the year.

At last year’s Jockey Club Round Table, TJC said it would consider bailing out racetracks that were unable to stay afloat. If TJC were a life raft, how long would it be before it sank in a sea of debt?

ARCI in January issued its Uniform Classification of Substances, and this year banned an additional 70 substances, expanding the list to 36 pages. Consider this: Cheaters are still using substances not on an already long list and veterinarians suggest hundreds more should be included.

On April 14, ARCI recommended strengthening the penalties for Class A drug violators. If the ARCI members, all commissioners from their respective states, convince racing commissions in their home states to promulgate such rules, owners and trainers could pay a steep price.

HRI has long advocated for stiffer penalties for owners whose horses test positive. Presently, they only forfeit the purse and have their horse placed on a vets’ list for first or second violations.

If states adopt new model rules for Class A drugs, first-time fines for trainers would range from $25,000 to $100,000 while also serving a minimum two-year suspension. Current rules call for a one-year suspension and fines in the $10,000 to $25,000 range.

Owners who commit a first or second offense currently forfeit the purse and the horse is placed on the vets list for 180 days and cannot race during that time-frame. A second-time offending owner would now receive a $25,000 fine; a three-time offender would be fined $50,000.

If trainers must serve mandatory suspensions, why let the owners who hire them off the hook?

Speaking of exceptions, no model rules include fines or suspensions of veterinarians. Why are vets not made to pay a fine and also serve days?

Current ARCI multiple medication-violation model rules state: Any veterinarian found to be involved in the administration of any drug carrying the penalty category of “A” shall be referred to the State Licensing Board of Veterinary Medicine for consideration of further disciplinary action and/or license revocation. This is in addition to any penalties issued by the stewards or the commission.

Hasn’t the time come for all parties responsible for Class A drug violations to shape up or ship out?