Sunday, May 05, 2019

Brutal Derby Beat But Tough and Proper Call

In less time that it took the Kentucky stewards to make their decision, the phone began to ring and texts pinged with 22- and 44-type speed. What happened? What do you think? Was it the right call? Was it fair?

Let’s start at the beginning: Maximum Security was the best horse on Kentucky Derby day, finishing first and remaining undefeated in five career starts.

In doing so, and with no malice aforethought by his rider, Luis Saez, the gate-to-wire leader, Maximum Security, likely spooked by 150,000 screaming fans, veered out a minimum of two paths and started a dangerous chain reaction. Stuff happens.

Almost simultaneously, War of Will, moved off the rail into the two-path and began to challenge the leader as Code of Honor shot up the fence to join the party while Country House, closer than anyone could have guessed, circled up menacingly.

There was going to be a four horse war of the roses from the top of the Churchill Downs stretch to the finish line, racing’s grandest stage was now set for another eventful renewal of America’s Horse Race.

But jumps before that table was set, Maximum Security jumped out into the path of Tyler Gaffalione’s mount, forcing him to check War of Will to avoid clipping heels with the leader and possibly worse.

The secondary effect occurred when War of Will, forced into and in front of the path of rallying Long Range Toddy, bidding to give his trainer, Steve Asmussen, a four Grade-1 Oaks-Derby145 weekend.

However, that impossible dream ended when Jon Court was forced to check Long Range Toddy so as to avoid War of Will’s heals. Yeah, there was a lot going on. Fast.

Split-second decisions, at 40 miles per hour, with rivals racing thisclose, is what jockeys risk every time they go out there. But safety comes first and often a jockey will take care of his horse first, hoping that, in turn, the horse will take care of him.

Cool athletic reflexes prevailed, both equine and human. No one got hurt. But as far as posterity is concerned, the real drama of Kentucky Derby 145 started to unfold and curious things followed.

If there was to be a claim of foul, it should have come from Gaffalione, not Flavien Prat, aboard the surprisingly agile Country House. After all, Maximum Security and Country House were nowhere near each other.

Prat had been the victim of a minor chain-reaction headstretch bump, not the kind that takes horses down, but he took his best shot. Hey, if Tyler won’t compel the stewards to look at the video, then he would.

Prat later admitted that the contact was minor but believed that the stewards needed to look at the incident because of what happened to “the other two horses.”

On NBC, the human connections said what you thought they might say.

Saez talked about his horse still being a baby, which is true, and horses react when the crowd roars from its belly as the horses reach headstretch. And so he “corrected him,” which he did. Some might say over-correct as Code of Honor was in tight along the fence.

“Winning trainer” Jason Servis was asked the same question and he basically answered what-he-said, restating only that the Saez straightened out Maximum Security as quickly possible.

Analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss were all over it and while no one knew what would happen—there never had been a Derby disqualification based on a racing infraction, although perhaps there could have been one in 1933--another-day story.

It shouldn’t matter that it was the Derby, as Mott said, and he’s right. Neither should it matter that 23 horses died from injuries in Southern California this winter and some animal rights groups want to eliminate all this “inhumanity” once and for all.

Yesterday, three stewards in the Commonwealth made a tough, proper call, whatever the motivation. In a quick social media survey in the immediate aftermath, sentiment was running about 55-45 in favor of the DQ.

Even that is stunning given that a horseplayer’s default position in these scenarios tend to go the other way.

It was the proper call, an indication that racing is not rigged, that its officials can be fair, unbiased arbiters, impartial because for whatever reason, those that unwittingly put rivals in danger should not be rewarded. Saez should be held blameless. The crowd did the damage; they deserve the days.

The stewards got it right, making possibly the most difficult decision in the 145-year history of the race. Tragedy was avoided and Thoroughbred racing fans will have Derby145 etched in memory the rest of their sporting lives.

Cell phone photo of NBC Sports Telecast

And this is not the way that Bill Mott wanted or could have envisioned his entrance into Kentucky Derby history, but he’ll take it because both Country House, the official winner of Derby145, and stablemate Tacitus, elevated to third, made him proud.

At first, Mott was concerned that justice might not prevail: “If it were a maiden 10 claimer, he would come down. You’re supposed to keep a straight line when you’re riding and there shouldn’t be a difference between a maiden 10k and the Kentucky Derby. It’s not supposed to matter between the two.

“There was definitely a foul in the race. My horses didn’t get bothered terribly. Country House got bumped just a little bit, but there were a couple jocks who almost went down in there.

“There’s over 100,000 people here and they don’t want to make that call, but it’s [the stewards’] duty to do the right thing... I think they want to be fair but there were a couple horses who nearly went down in the race and I think those horses, it eliminated all chance for them.

“There were a couple jocks who had to stand straight up at a very critical time in the race. I can’t say that he bothered my horse that badly and I’m not going to moan about that. It’s really between the horses that he bothered and the winner…

“It’s bittersweet and I’d be lying if I said it was any different. You say you always want to win with a clean trip and everyone recognizes the horse as the great athlete he is and due to the DQ, some of that is diminished.

“Two horses lost all chance to win a Kentucky Derby and they were in a position at the time to hit the board…

“People bet on these horses and millions are bet on these races. I know the stewards had a very difficult decision. With that being said, I’m damn glad they put our number up.”

Someday all of racing would think about this Derby, the decision that was made, in this place at this time, made them damn glad the put up Mott’s number, too.

Not So Easy Like Sunday Morning...

I heaped much praise on the stewards for making the correct decision, but on two other matters they cannot be held blameless. First, a stewards inquiry should have been posted before a jockey's objection.

Second, they had an obligation to the sport to talk with the press post-DQ. (And, please, no nonsense about possible future litigation and the like). #Transparency

After the inaugural running of the controversial Breeders' Cup Classic deep-stretch run, the media was invited to watch the films with them the next morning and they explained the reasons for making their decision. It's too bad that this teachable moment was lost in Louisville.

To explain the incident, the SoCal stewards looked at the head-on view that simulated running lanes that show on the monitor, indicating if Wild Again, sandwiched Slew o' Gold, and Gate Dancer outside, were guilty of lane violations jumps from the finish line.

The superimposed visual aid gave a clear indication of the paths taken; it was 1984 and the media got a chance to watch racing's Big Brother at work.

Parenthetically, perhaps NBC can contact the Kentucky stewards for a pre-Preakness interview segment a week from Saturday.

Those of you on Twitter (@johnpricci) will find two tweets of Mark Casse's backstretch interview this morning: A class act and with sincerity informing the sunlight, it was a breath of fresh air to be sure.

Also props to Bill Mott who, under pressure and live, spoke honestly from the mind and heart. Never have been prouder of two of the game's best practitioners...

Proof positive that it was a proper call? This morning, the President of Ten Thousand Lies said that it was a bad disqualification, blaming political correctness.

©John Pricci,, May 4, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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