On Saturday May 4th Maximum Security, the clear (unofficial) winner of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, was disqualified. After the race was over, two jockeys filed objections. They argued that Maximum Security committed a foul under the rules that govern horseracing in the state of Kentucky. After ~20 minutes of suspense, three judges or “Stewards” as they are known in the sport, upheld the competing jockey’s objections and made a unanimous decision to disqualify Maximum Security for violating Section 12 of rule 810. That rule stipulates that disqualification is warranted if "a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey." Maximum Security thus became the 1st horse in Derby history to be disqualified on race day (though in 1968, Derby winner Dancer’s image was eventually stripped of his title for receiving performance enhancing drugs).
Through their attorney Barry Stilz, Maximum Security’s owners, Gary & May West, immediately appealed the Steward’s decision. It was denied. The West’s could theoretically pursue legal options but the odds of any substantive changes are shall we say, a “long shot.” Thus, Country House, a 65 to 1 long shot in his own right was declared the winner while Maximum Security dropped to 17th place.
For the record, at The Quintessential Centrist, prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby, we did not know much about horseracing. For this piece, we thoroughly researched the sport and its rules. We also conducted interviews with several knowledgeable racing fans. And as always, we welcome our reader’s feedback. Your thoughtful comments, ideas and opinions are a material part of what helps us improve our process. We thank you in advance for your participation.
Taken what we have gathered over the past week via our own due diligence coupled with probing interviews, our view is as follows: from the untrained eye, it appeared that Maximum Security clearly veered out of his lane and impeded other participants. Under the state of Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) rules, this is a violation that warrants disqualification. That said, we wonder if there was room for the Stewards at the Kentucky Derby to be more holistic and qualitative in their approach.
At TQC, we are avid (American) football enthusiasts and as such, have the benefit of a deeper understanding of the nuances surrounding the sport. In the National Football League (NFL), one of the most common penalties in the game is “holding.” If officials wanted to, they could throw a flag for “holding” on essentially every single play. That said, referees typically only penalize a team for “holding” if the foul was either blatantly obvious no matter where on the field it took place, or it had a material impact on the play. We enjoy watching basketball too. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), players often take an extra half-step or “travel” when penetrating towards the basket. While “traveling” is not permitted under NBA rules – and when called results in a change of ball possession – officials rarely blow their whistle for this offense. “Traveling” occurs frequently. Unless the “travel” was egregious and or allowed for an easier pathway to produce a basket, it is often ignored.
Of course, “holding,” violations in the NFL, “traveling” violations in the NBA, and disqualifications in horseracing are subjective judgment calls. It is extremely difficult to get it right all the time. Mistakes do happen. That said, we would think in a race with 19 live animals weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds each, it would be abnormal for bumping and crowding not to happen. In our view, technically the correct call was made, but the Stewards probably should not have made the call. Maximum Security clearly impeded other horses, but would it have made difference in the outcome of the race? At least pertaining to which horse ultimately won? We would say unequivocally no, it did not. Maximum Security won by over a length (a legitimate argument could be made that Maximum Security’s foul affected the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the race).
Said one source with intimate knowledge of the sport, “Technically he (Maximum Security) veered into the lane. But Maximum was the best horse, (he) clearly won and truth is he probably would have won by more if he just ran straight.” As an aside, the Stewards decision certainly affected the record $165.5 million that was wagered on the race. In fact, “gamblers across the nation placed just over $6.2 million in bets on the 9-2 race favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Finally, one source opined, “if Bob Baffert had been Maximum’s trainer, no way they (the Stewards) make that call.” Apparently, Maximum Security’s trainer was a man by the name of Jason Servis. Up until recently, Mr. Servis had been known as an unremarkable, middle of the pack trainer. Though recently, horses under his command notched some impressive wins. Speculation has it that Servis was, perhaps, not abiding by all the rules in order to gain an edge on the competition. Might it not look good for Servis to win such a high profile race given the accusations leveled against him? Baffert on the other hand is extremely well respected within the industry. This source thinks Stewards would have given Maximum Security the benefit of the doubt had Baffert been his trainer.
Another angle presented to us by horse racing enthusiasts was that the Stewards never should have started the race with all the puddling. One told us that he thought Maximum Security veered to avoid a puddle (others pointed towards the horse being spooked by crowd noise from the 150,000 spectators). “I have a problem with the Stewards allowing the race to go off with all that water,” he told TQC. “Mud is one thing, but deep puddles are a hazard. 19 horses, 150,000 people, and hazardous conditions.”
We would be remiss not to mention that Maximum Security was a legitimate potential “triple crown” winner – a very rare accomplishment where one horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. As a result of the Stewards’ decision, any opportunity for Maximum Security to achieve this rare feat was voided. Maximum Security will not race in the Preakness. Said owner Gary West, “No, we’re not going to run in the Preakness…There’s no Triple Crown on the line for us, and there’s no reason to run a horse back in two weeks when you don’t have to.”
Additionally, the “winner” of the Derby, Country House, will also not run in the Preakness due to a potential illness. Said trainer Bill Mott, “He's acting like he's going to get sick. He's off the training list, and if he's off the training list, he's off the Preakness list." Hence, the importance of the Preakness, the second leg of the triple crown, will be heavily diluted. Casual viewership will be down and there will be less overall interest in the race. This is also important to note because it exemplifies that the Stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby not only directly changed the outcome of that race, but negatively affected the remaining two races of the Triple Crown. Needless to say, this is certainly not what horseracing needs right now.
Is Any Press Good Press?
The consensus among pundits is that the recent controversy surrounding the Kentucky Derby is a black eye for horseracing. In fact, aside from the one time per year (during the Kentucky Derby) when everybody who’s somebody becomes a spectator, horseracing as a sport has lost some of its luster. The number of engaged fans continues to gradually decline. The fan base is older and predominately white. Current demographics are not on horseracing’s side. However, as a result of the Maximum Security debate, more people are discussing horseracing than at any other time in recent history. Perhaps the latest hullabaloo will be a catalyst to facilitate necessary changes that would make horseracing more appealing to a broader audience.
One contributing factor to American’s growing aversion to horseracing is the realization that the sport, while entertaining to its audience, is hazardous to its most important asset, the horses. In 2018, “493 horses died or were euthanized within 72 hours of sustaining a catastrophic race injury. That’s about 10 horses each week. In the last ten years, a total of 6,134 horses have died. That tally doesn’t include deaths from training.” To put some context around these figures and control for the number of actual races that take place, ~1.70 horses die per 1,000 race starts.
The problem has been particularly acute at Santa Anita racetrack, in California. Since late December of 2018, 23 horses have died on the track. According to NBC news, 10 horses died the previous season, eight the season before that. Unseasonably warm and wet weather has been cited as one possible culprit for the uptick in equine deaths. An unstable track / foundation is another theory being floated. But rumors point to a more sinister catalyst; that injured horses have been forced to run. Animal rights activists have taken notice and have staged multiple protests. Respected horse trainer Bob Hess opined, “Something is wrong and needs to be fixed and addressed immediately…It’s past the point of embarrassing.”
Critics of horseracing also contend that after animals become too old to race competitively, and “retire,” they are often sold to buyers south of the border, in Mexico. There, the horses find their way to slaughter houses where they are killed for meat. Might a horse who raced for years and provided entertainment and enjoyment for the masses – not to mention a source of revenue for its handlers and those who bet on that horse alike – be entitled to a more dignified end?
After researching the topic and consulting with a number of horseracing enthusiasts, TQC has come up with the following recommendations that we feel, if enacted, will streamline the sport and make horseracing safer, more enjoyable, and potentially position it for growth in the future.
• Create a national governing body to enact rules and regulations across all 50 states.
• Establish uniform standards for track length and surface.
• Eliminate or strongly regulate the use of performance enhancing drugs.
• Set min/max temperatures for horses to be allowed to run at.
• Provide horses a minimum number of rest days between races.
• Set a maximum number of horses allowed in a race to minimize chances of an accident.
• Establish a standard for the type of shoes or “hoofs” horses are fitted for.
• Create a “retirement” fund for horses to help ensure a humane life, post career.
The unfortunate sequence of events, culminated by the controversy in the Kentucky Derby might very well turn out to be a blessing. Often it takes a crisis to garner the political will to make structural reforms that are painful in the short term but necessary for the long-term health and sustainability of an industry or organization. Under normal circumstances, the recommendations listed above would be next to impossible to implement. Perhaps those individuals who have an interest in seeing horseracing not only survive but also flourish while embracing more humane conditions can use the latest setbacks as an opportunity to restructure. Is this an inflection point, the nadir in the state of horseracing, or is this the top of the media cycle relating to a particular newsworthy event - after all, we are writing about it! – and will horseracing simply mean revert back to its previous trend of the general population's interest continuing to wane?