Kentucky Derby: The right call done the wrong way

In a sentence, the Churchill Downs stewards made the right call to disqualify first-place finisher Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), but did so in a way that hurt the public’s faith in the integrity of racing.

Kentucky racing rules need changes to bring more public awareness and confidence in stewards’ race reviews, for the good of the sport and industry. The disqualification and the rule upon which it was based aren’t the issue.

The stewards properly determined a foul occurred and disqualified Maximum Security. When he moved out several lanes, it hampered the chances of War of Will and others, just as they ruled — a foul that can happen any day in any size field. Fortunately, a dangerous situation wasn’t disastrous. Beyond fairness of competition, interference rules also exist to ensure the safety of competitors, equine and human.

Even though the stewards found that the first claim of foul, from rider Flavien Prat of the now-winner Country House, did not merit disqualification, Prat said he believed the entire incident merited a review. Based on the subsequent disqualification for interference in which the stewards determined Maximum Security interfered with three other horses, Prat was right.

That Prat’s horse won because the rules say Maximum Security had to go behind the farthest-back finisher of those he was found to have impeded is the standard rule in U.S. racing. When a winner is taken down, the runner-up moves into that spot. Do critics prefer that a disqualification mean a vacated win, resulting in no winner — like the fantasyland of the NCAA rulebook in basketball?

The fact that the stewards didn’t agree with Prat as it relates to whether his horse was interfered with is immaterial. If you witness a crime, isn’t it a good thing to report it? This wasn’t a crime — Maximum Security shied from the crowd noise, his rider Luis Saez said — but the principle of reporting fouls is fundamental to racing. For that matter, stewards do not have to determine intentions of riders to find a foul occurred.

Whether another horse would have beaten Maximum Security to the finish line also is immaterial. When he ducked out and, as the stewards ruled, he initially interfered with War of Will, which caused chain-reaction interference with two other horses, the horses impacted clearly lost their chance for a better finish. That’s the standard the stewards are determining in making a disqualification call.

A second claim of foul came from Long Range Toddy’s jockey Jon Court, whose horse the stewards would determine was fouled, along with Bodexpress. That the connections of War of Will, who bore the immediate brunt of Maximum Security shifting from the rail, didn’t also file a protest is their call. But don’t blame the riders who did protest —  so long as the claims aren’t frivolous.The objections that were filed by Prat and Court clearly had merit.

That gets this discussion to the review of what happened at Churchill with the Kentucky Derby, and that’s where changes are needed. In the irregular instance where something is questionable in a race, it’s very regular for Kentucky stewards not to post an inquiry. Trainer Bill Mott told BloodHorse he’s seen this practice become more routine at a number of tracks throughout the country.

In racing, stewards review for possible fouls after a race and before it goes official in one of two ways: an inquiry where the stewards initiate the investigation, or an objection where race participants lodge the claim. In either case, a notification is placed on the toteboard to inform the public of the review.

Kentucky stewards, by practice of many years, infrequently — it’s probably fair to say rarely — post the inquiry sign. No inquiry was posted in the Derby.

When an objection is lodged without the formal posting of an inquiry, it leads to what happened in the Derby: veteran race viewers operating under the assumption that whatever happened must not have been that bad because it wasn’t obvious enough that stewards called an inquiry. Surely they would have, right?

Kentucky rules should be changed to require stewards post the inquiry sign if they initiate a review. Also, when an objection is filed and the stewards begin to look at incidents beyond the initial claim of foul, the inquiry should be posted. Believe it or not, it’s may not be required currently.

Letting the public know a bump was seen inspires confidence in the process. Not every replay in football results in a call being overturned — but most deserve a review. Same for racing. Just waiting for an objection leads many to believe that, but for that objection, the foul wasn’t seen and no disqualification would have resulted. The public assumption seems to be that the Churchill stewards weren’t reviewing the matter before the objection was claimed. Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Executive Director Marc Guilfoil said Sunday that they already were reviewing it, but didn’t post an inquiry.

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Maximum Security leads Country House to the wire in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve.

One objection was claimed and announced to the crowd on Saturday. The stewards later said a second jockey also claimed foul but, to my knowledge, this second claim was not announced to the crowd at Churchill immediately after the race. It may have been announced on television; I was at the track and haven’t watched the broadcast.

So the second rule change needed is that any and all objections should be announced to the crowd. Not just the first one.

The stewards are to be commended for making a public statement after the race, and I get why they didn’t take questions since this may end up in court. But — in this day and age where seconds in 2019 are the equivalent of hours in 1940 — the reasoning in the statement should have been announced to the public immediately after the race, like is done in California and, by track policy, was to be done at Turfway Park this winter. Whether the announcement is made directly by the stewards or by the track announcer on behalf of the stewards can be debated, but, first and foremost, just tell the people what and why as soon as possible.

Folks fleeing the track immediately after the race to get ahead of traffic and millions of TV viewers, many who may watch one race a year — the Derby — likely are thoroughly confused. If the stewards had explained their decision, indeed a correct decision, immediately, it’s likely that more people would have a better understanding of the sport and its rules.

A joke around the racetrack is that the stewards should treat the Derby like every other race — it’s the 12th race on Saturday. They did that with a disqualification that promotes safe racing, but did so in a way that leaves many needlessly questioning the integrity of the sport.

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3 thoughts on “Kentucky Derby: The right call done the wrong way

  1. Yes, the winner impeded War of Will, who then impeded Long Range Toddy but Prat’s CLAIM OF FOUL was “frivolous’ and he should be suspended, if for nothing else lying on National TV. His horse was not bothered even a little,

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