LOUISVILLE — Reaction ranged from anger and confusion to complaints about the stewards’ conduct after a horse that crossed the finish line first failed to win the Kentucky Derby for the only time in the 145-year history of the nation’s most prestigious race.
Stewards upheld the objections of two jockeys and disqualified Maximum Security even though the front-runner finished 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Country House and jockey Flavien Prat. Country House, a 65-1 long shot that resulted in the second-largest win payout ever at $132.40, was declared the winner after what seemed an inordinately long 22-minute review Saturday.
Barbara Borden, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, read a statement to the media Saturday to explain the unprecedented action in a Derby approximately two hours after the conclusion of the hotly debated opening leg of the Triple Crown. She declined to take questions from reporters.
Gary West, the irate owner of Maximum Security, responded to an interview request by emailing, “I think the fact that the head steward would not take any questions shows complete lack of transparency and optically appears they know they made a bad decision and needed some time to put the best possible spin on their extremely questionable decision.”
Jon Court joined Prat in lodging an objection against rider Luis Saez and Maximum Security for abruptly moving away from the rail and impeding their progress around the turn for home. Court expressed disappointment that this year’s Derby could not have been as cleanly run as it was last year, when undefeated Justify staged a spectacular performance as a springboard to sweeping the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
“We just had a Triple Crown and then we had a fiasco,” Court said.
Part of that “fiasco” may be that the three stewards — Borden works with state steward Brooks Becraft and with Churchill Downs-appointed Tyler Picklesimer — never posted an inquiry sign to indicate to the crowd of 150,729 and a vast NBC television audience that they believed an incident occurred that deserved to be reviewed.
Trainer Mark Casse, whose War of Will was the first to be impeded, praised the stewards’ action. But he said: “The inquiry sign should probably have gone up as soon as they passed the wire. I was actually surprised it wasn’t up.”
Stewards also initially indicated to track officials and NBC that only Prat, whose Country House was affected to a lesser degree than Court’s Long Range Toddy, had objected. Court, bidding to become the oldest jockey to ride a Derby winner at 58, said he made it known during a phone interview with stewards that he was greatly compromised.
“I got turned sideways one way and then I got jacked back the other way and I was eliminated,” Court said.
Long Range Toddy faded to 17th after being checked hard. War of Will, also checked by Tyler Gaffalione, wound up eighth. Surprisingly, Gaffalione never formally objected.
Casse attributed the amount of time taken to disqualify Maximum Security to the magnitude of the decision. It not only altered history but resulted in a massive shift in wagering dollars.
“If it was the last race of the day, it would have taken about two minutes, if that long,” he said. “The only reason it took so long was because it was the Kentucky Derby.”
Although the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Watchmaker questioned why the stewards did not indicate they were initiating their own inquiry, he praised them for ultimately getting it right.
“I understand that it doesn’t look great that the stewards didn’t see it themselves,” Watchmaker said, “but it’s there.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott finally broke through in a quest to win the Derby that began in 1984. Yet he was hardly elated as he stood outside Barn 19 on Sunday morning.
“I’d be lying if I said it was the best way to do it,” he said.
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