By Clocker Vandalay, Contributor
I have a friend, who is a fellow professional and young, relative to me. She was drawn to horse racing a couple of years ago, her interest triggered by a move from Florida to Louisville, where horse racing is considered a legitimate and interesting sport, second only to Kentucky and Louisville basketball in fan appeal.
Though she had watched Derbies on television, living in the land of horses gave her a chance to see the sport first hand and become aware of the many things in it that the small screen does not capture.
My friend was drawn to the sport in large part because of her love of animals and the grace, beauty and athleticism of the horse. Sometimes her love for all things horse makes her as interested in the saddle pony as she is the thoroughbred. She loves being on the rail to watch a post parade as much as she likes a race, as it is a measured runway walk of arched necks, flowing manes, and prancing hooves from spectacularly muscled specimens.
And, she likes the pageantry associated with the sport’s biggest events, and the fashion demands and opportunities they offer. Always a football fan, I think she would tell you that she has been transformed, and now would rank a Triple Crown or Breeder’s Cup race as her favorite sporting event to attend.
She has immersed herself in the sport, and has developed a curiosity that has her asking me many questions about it. That ongoing conversation always turns to Derby prospects in the winter and spring of each year, and this year was no different as we texted and talked frequently about who impressed us. When all of the Derby prep races had been run, we decided that this was not a particularly talented field, but that Maximum Security was among its fastest members and Country House was not.
That is why, as she sat adorned in dress and fascinator at a rooftop bar Derby party Saturday, in her annual homage to the idea that every Derby presents an opportunity for a new hero to emerge (like last year’s Justify), she could not process that Maximum Security crossed the finish line first only to see his win taken away via disqualification and given to Country House.
The texts to me came fast and furiously as she demanded answers to questions like how did this happen or how could anyone who finished clearly second be proud that they had won the Derby?
It was at that point I realized, in all of the discussions we had about horse racing and all of the races we had watched together, we had never seen a disqualification for careless riding. As a long time gambler and a former horse owner, I had seen and experienced lots of disqualifications by stewards, so it was not an unusual experience for me, even if this might be the first ever disqualification in the Derby.
How was I going to explain that process in the aftermath of the sport’s biggest race that would make sense to someone who idealizes that event and expects it live to its highest possibilities each year? (Indeed, how would millions of “single race” viewers understand it?) Of course, I couldn’t do it justice then, so I decided to try through this blog piece.
Each state has its own rules about how jockeys are supposed to ride their mounts during a race, and there was a Kentucky rule that Luis Saez violated with Maximum Security as he exited the far turn of the race. That rule, Section 12 of 810 KAR 1:016, calls for the disqualification if “a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate or impede any other horse or jockey.”
Maximum Security clearly swerved into the path of War of Will, causing War of Will’s rider to “take up” his horse, slowing his momentum and, miraculously, avoiding what would have been a disastrous spill. [Tyler Gafflalione’s riding ability or War of Will’s athleticism, or both, prevented an outcome that could have ended the sport as we know it given the certain deaths/injuries that would have occurred if they had fallen, and the controversies about the safety and inhumane treatment of the sport that arose at Santa Anita earlier this year.]
It is a pretty well accepted axiom of racing that every horse makes a serious quarter of a mile move in a race, and War of Will was deprived of his by Maximum Security. Would an unimpeded move allowed War of Will to win? Of course there is no way of knowing but any veteran of the game will tell you that his having to take up made him run several lengths slower than what he would have done without any impediment, and likely cost him purse money given his finish.
Maximum Security had to be disqualified under those circumstances, even if we could somehow know that War of Will would not have outrun him to the finish line without the mishap.
Though riding rules can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, almost every state has a rule similar to Kentucky’s. The problem for some in the wake of Saturday’s ruling is that there are different stewards at every different track in America and, like officials in the NBA, NHL, NFL or MLB, they produce varying interpretations of the same rules.
Ask any grizzled track veteran about inconsistencies in interpretations and he will sarcastically tell you the stewards at one track will disqualify horses if they breathe heavily on another horse while, at another track, the infraction has to draw blood before they take a horse’s number down. What they do with a horse that is passing a tired horse that is dropping out of the race is different than what they do with two horses locked in a thrilling stretch duel.
The inconsistent application of the rules can even appear within the same race, the Derby being a prime example. Rarely is there a Derby start that does not involve a horse having to take up because the two horses to his immediate outside break into his path, and no disqualifications have occurred despite such “swerving.” That is because there is anticipated and unavoidable bumping that will occur at the beginning of any race with 20 horses and, unless it knocks a horse sideways, it is assumed that the horse can recover in the mile and a quarter that remains. With only a quarter of a mile to go in the Derby, and every horse attempting to make his best move, the stewards are not as forgiving, and common sense dictates they shouldn’t be.
For any owner to place a horse in a race, or any gambler to bet on a race, they have to have some confidence that the race will be run safely and fairly. Jockeys cannot have license to ride roughly or interfere with other horses and affect outcomes or create safety issues, even unintentionally. No set of rules is ever going to describe every potential infraction, and no set of rules is ever going to be uniformly enforced when there are as many different tracks and sets of stewards interpreting and applying them to varying racing circumstances.
In the end, it may seem that a disqualifying infraction is to stewards, many of whom are former riders, like pornography was to Supreme Court Justice Potter: they know one when they see one. Even without the clear Kentucky riding rule, Saturday’s ruling was just that kind, as Maximum Security’s ride was neither safe nor fair.
So, to my friend and all others who idealize the sport and want to see all that is good in horse racing emerge on Kentucky Derby day, and who feel cheated that a horse which clearly wasn’t the best get the garland of roses, I feel your pain. But, as disappointing as that outcome may have been, something bigger and better about the sport was preserved – its integrity – and that is necessary if you want to continue to develop your hopes and dreams for future Derby and Breeder’s Cup races.