LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This has not been horse racing’s finest hour: Dead horses at Santa Anita Park and consternation among horse people that they can treat their athletes better but have failed to do so. It’s little wonder then that the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday ended in astonishment and controversy.
See, Maximum Security won America’s most famous race on the track. Until he didn’t. Yes, he crossed the finish line first, by all appearances remaining unbeaten and giving a hard-knocking trainer from the Mid-Atlantic, Jason Servis, and his up-and-coming jockey, Luis Saez, their first Derby victories.
But there was a problem — a big one. Maximum Security jumped a puddle on the rain-soaked track and slid to the outside, not only impeding the progress of a rival, War of Will, but also forcing that colt’s rider, Tyler Gaffalione, to squeeze his knees and wrangle the reins just to stay aboard.
“Leave it to the racing gods,” an increasingly anguished Servis said as he awaited the stewards’ decision after an objection.
After the racing stewards spent nearly 20 minutes looking at video, they decided the misstep was enough to disqualify Maximum Security and declare the runner-up, a 65-1 shot named Country House, the improbable victor.
It was not a popular decision. In fact, it was the brave one.
As officials studied video, the trainer of Country House, Bill Mott, was trackside and said on national television what horseplayers know, dread and curse on a regular basis.
“There was definitely a foul in the race,” Mott, a Hall of Famer, said. “If this was a maiden claimer on a weekday the winner would come down.”
He did, and Mott, a horseman revered among his peers for being “half-horse,” had his first Derby victory. The rider of Country House, Flavien Prat, also notched his first Derby score, an experience he was bemused by.
Maximum Security finished one and three-quarter lengths in front of Country House, and Country House finished three-quarters of a length in front of Code of Honor.
“It’s my first Derby victory,” Prat said with a shrug and a smile.
The stakes were high on Saturday for a declining sport that has quickly become an endangered one. Twenty-three horse deaths over a three-month span at Santa Anita Park in Southern California shut down racing there and produced calls to ban the sport.
Here at Churchill Downs, 43 thoroughbreds were lost to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average during the same time.
So it was with racing hearts and fraught nerves that the crowd of 150,729 sent off the field of 19 horses on a rainy day that left the racetrack as sticky as peanut butter and the horses and riders determined to find safe and strategic footing.
It looked like Saez had guided Maximum Security to a winning path. They bounded out of the gate and led the way into the first turn. The plan was apparent every step of the way.
It appeared to have worked. Servis was about to make history of his own. His younger brother John won this race with Smarty Jones in 2004 and now he was about to join him in the record books as the only brothers to train a Derby champion.
Instead, it was someone else’s day.
“It’s bittersweet,” Mott said. “You always want to win with a clean trip and have the horse recognized as the great athlete that he is. So yeah, it diminishes it. I know they had a very tough decision. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”
Then he paused, and a smile crept into the corners of his mouth.
“I’m damn glad they put our number up.”
After horse deaths, many will be holding their breath during the race.
Nobody knows exactly why (some blame the racing surface, others cite medications), but the treatment of the animals — before, during and after racing — is under the harshest scrutiny in years.
The Kentucky Derby is not immune from catastrophic events. In 2008, the filly Eight Belles was euthanized after sustaining compound fractures in both front ankles after finishing second in the race. A statue of the filly graces the courtyard of the Kentucky Derby Museum on the grounds here.
So far, we have a fast track.
Saturday’s foreboding forecast looked like it could be a bit of a fluke on Saturday morning as only an intermittent light drizzle blanketed the grounds at Churchill Downs, where the temperature was in the mid-60s. The track has been listed as fast all day, but the mist has turned into a more steady rain and the wind has picked up. Patrons have begun to break out the ponchos to protect their Derby Day finest.
The Derby entrants to have won on a wet dirt track include War of Will, Maximum Security, Tacitus, Master Fencer and Spinoff. Others who own top-three finishes on a wet surface include By My Standards, Improbable, Plus Que Parfait, Cutting Humor, Win Win Win and Country House.
Jose Ortiz won the Oaks. Irad Ortiz Jr. has won three today. Signs of things to come?
Serengeti Empress, ridden by Jose Ortiz, led from gate to wire to capture the 145th Kentucky Oaks on Friday for the trainer Tom Amoss. She returned $28 on a $2 bet to win.
While Amoss does not have a horse in the Derby, Ortiz, among the top riders on the New York circuit along with his brother Irad Ortiz Jr., will be riding the Wood Memorial winner Tacitus for Mott. Mott is a longtime trainer who has captured the sport’s biggest races but has faltered in eight previous Derby tries. His best finish came last year when Hofburg finished seventh with Irad aboard.
Jose finished second last year with Good Magic, his best showing in four previous starts. Irad also has a more than solid chance this year — he won three races of the first 11 races today. In his fourth Derby start, he will be aboard the popular Baffert trainee Improbable.
It’s much more than a horse race.
Entering Churchill Downs on Derby day is a sight to behold — a sea of people dressed in their Saturday best, including brightly colored hats, dresses, suits and jockey silks. Celebrities mingle in Millionaires Row in the clubhouse; everyday folks contribute to a different party scene in the infield.
The race itself is the climax of a weeklong horse-themed party. Highlights include the Taste of the Derby, a foodie’s dream; Unbridled Eve, a traditional charity gala at the Galt House Hotel; the celebrity-filled Barnstable Brown party, hosted by the Wrigley’s Doublemint twins Patricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Barnstable (Tom Brady was spotted there this year); and the Fillies and Stallions Derby Eve party, where actors and athletes (Aaron Rodgers is a mainstay) swap moves with whip-toting dancers dressed as jockeys.