What follows is the rant of a gambler who had a winning ticket in the Kentucky Derby. A ticket eventually made worthless. But it also comes from a journalist who felt compelled to write those first two sentences. Attempts perhaps futile will be made to remain objective.
What happened here at Churchill Downs – what really happened – took longer than the 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham for control of Québec. Longer than the tape that Rose Mary Woods erased during Watergate. Longer than it took two years ago to realize that “La La Land” did not win the Oscar.
The most exciting two minutes in sports were followed by the most ponderous 22 minutes imaginable. When stewards finally got off their high horses Saturday evening here at Churchill Downs, they decreed that Country House (65-1), the second horse across the finish line, had won the 145th Kentucky Derby. And that Maximum Security (9-2), the first under the wire, had committed the ticky-tack foul heard ’round the racing world.
“Once I got him outside and started making my move, Maximum Security drifted out and turned me sideways,” Country House’s jockey Flavien Prat said. “The horse inside of me had more trouble than I did, but it affected me anyway.”
Maximum Security did veer out in the turn for home. A little bit. And he did impede War Of Will (16-1) and Long Range Toddy (54-1). More than a little bit. And in turn War Of Will checked and struck Country House. Well ... bumped Country House. Davide Moretti of Texas Tech might have laid more flesh on that basketball late in the NCAA final against Virginia than Maximum Security laid on any other horse. (OK, I will accept that that is an exaggeration.)
“If it were a maiden (race) he would come down,” Country House’s Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott was heard to say before the decision was announced. “You’re supposed to keep a straight line when you’re riding, and there shouldn’t be a difference between a maiden (race) and the Kentucky Derby.”
Doing a 180 on John Veitch’s indecision that left a lame Life At Ten to go ahead and race here in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup, Veitch’s heirs to the stewards’ aerie got heavy-handed and concocted a version of what would have transpired over the final quarter-mile were it not for Maximum Security’s minimum contact, even though Mott later admitted “nobody knows what would have happened.”
So for the first time the Derby saw an apparent winner disqualified on race day. The only other time that a first-place number was taken down was 1968, when Dancer’s Image tested positive for a drug that is now legal across North American racing, and Forward Pass was promoted to the victory.
Sáez probably did not help himself Saturday when he said, “My horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little.” But he also said, “I thought I never put anybody in danger.”
Is that what he told the stewards? Just what were racing’s versions of Nevada State Athletic Commission boxing judges really thinking? We may never know. Kentucky’s chief steward Barbara Borden faced reporters nearly 2½ hours after the race and, flanked by silent colleagues Butch Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer, read a 59-second statement.
“The riders of the 18 and 20 horses (Jon Court on Long Range Toddy and Luís Sáez on Country House) in the Kentucky Derby lodged objections against the 7 horse, the winner, due to interference turning for home leaving the quarter pole. We had a lengthy review of the race. We interviewed affected riders. We determined that the 7 horse drifted out and impacted the progress of number 1 (War Of Will), in turn interfering with the 18 and 21 (Bodexpress). Those horses were all affected we thought by the interference. Therefore we unanimously determined to disqualify the number 7 and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”
With that Borden, Becraft and Picklesimer left the stage, refusing to respond to shouted questions like why there was no transparency in the process and why they felt they did not have to provide answers when they were public employees at the beck and call of Kentucky taxpayers.
Their process was sloppier than the rain-soaked racetrack, which had been dry and fast only 90 minutes earlier – before long-promised rain had finally arrived. The stewards could have acted on their own but, instead, waited for the objections. Oh, yeah. They ignored questions about that, too.
But don’t blame Prat. His nothing-ventured, nothing-gained objection should earn the 26-year-old native of France at least double the regular 10 percent share of the $1.86 million first prize. It really is too bad for him and Mott, both of whom became first-time Derby winners in ways that they could not have dreamed. Sáez and trainer Jason Servis would have been – had the stewards not been authoring their own nightmare.
After a weekend when the track went from speed-favoring to closer-friendly to regatta-ready, the Derby seemed to be a simple case of getting the lead first and spraying mud in the faces of trailing rivals. Sáez and Maximum Security put that strategy into motion, clocked at 22.31 and 24.31 seconds for each of the first two quarter-miles.
Then Sáez turned the race into a repeat of the Florida Derby, which Maximum Security led the whole way at a very slow pace. The next two quarter-miles went in a dawdling 25.88 and 26.13 seconds. Then came the quarter pole, where Sáez urged Maximum Security to accelerate again. That is when the bumping happened.
Along the way, Country House rated the pace from mid-pack, and Prat started scrubbing vigorously early in the second turn, taking a three-wide path to line up infamously with Maximum Security and War Of Will. Little did we know at the time what a meeting that would be.
Code Of Honor (14-1), third to Maximum Security in the Florida Derby, was promoted from third to second. Country House’s stable mate Tacitus (5-1) was boosted to third. One of Bob Baffert’s trio – Improbable (4-1) – was awarded fourth, but he was still the first post-time favorite in six years that did not end up wearing the roses. The winning – er – first-place time was 2:03.93.
Thanks to racing’s answer to the 2000 presidential election, Country House became the longest shot to win the Derby since 1913, when Donerail scored at record odds of 91-1. He was also 60-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas in futures betting that lasted until the final hour before post time.
Thus was written a notorious end to the curious story of this year’s Derby trail, one struck with the misfortune of racetrack fatalities at Santa Anita, the confoundingly blistering pace in most of the penultimate preps and then this past week the scratch of futures favorite Omaha Beach.
That it would end with a bang caused by the whimper of two jockeys seemed somehow appropriate. In the 145-year annals of the Kentucky Derby, this book should probably be thrown into an incinerator.
Kentucky Derby notes and opinions
He was on his toes in the paddock, and he resisted taking the bit. He gave trainer Chad Brown and his team all they could handle just saddling him Saturday afternoon. But like a disgruntled employee who is good at his job, Bricks And Mortar (1-1) was all business when it came time to get to work. Moving forward by Írad Ortiz Jr. from mid-pack in the final turn, he steadily picked off the outclassed rivals in front of him on the way to a half-length victory in the $1 million Grade 1 Turf Classic over 1⅛ miles of wet but firm grass at Churchill Downs. Qurbaan (13-1) was second and Clyde’s Image (27-1) third, trailing the winning time of 1:51.80. A 5-year-old horse sired by Giant’s Causeway, Bricks And Mortar’s winning streak includes the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. His career earnings have reached $3.76 million, including $3.4 million just this year.
When she is favored, she has disappointed bettors six times. As a long shot Saturday, Mia Mischief (11-1) paid off handsomely for players who have been patient with her. Ridden skillfully by Ricardo Santana Jr., the enigmatic 4-year-old filly trained by Steve Asmussen stayed just off the early pace and then blew away Bob Baffert-trained favorite Marley’s Freedom (4-5) to win the seven-furlong Grade 1 Humana Distaff. The winning time on the fast dirt was 1:21.78. Mia Mischief has raced six times here at Churchill Downs, winning three and placing second twice.
Chalk players were not cashing before Asmussen and Santana won with Mitole (2-1) in the seven-furlong, $500,000 Grade 1 Churchill Downs on the main track. Racing just off the pace set by eventual runner-up Bobby’s Wicked One (7-1) and third-place Promises Fulfilled (5-1), the 4-year-old colt sired by Eskendereya took the lead in mid-stretch on the way to a winning time of 1:21.21. The 3½-length victory was Mitole’s sixth in a row and his second in graded stakes.
Remember when Instagrand and Roadster were the only two horses that were offered last summer in the brief time that the Wynn Las Vegas offered 2019 Derby futures? The time since has not been kind to one of them. Instagrand (l-1) faded in the turn on his way to finishing a distant eighth in the $400,000 Grade 3 Pat Day Mile around one turn of the main track. Mr. Money (7-1) took the lead turning into the stretch and pulled away for a 5¼-length win over Hog Creek Hustle (16-1). After a pair of 10-length wins last summer in California, Instagrand has not looked his old self. Owner Larry Best pushed trainer Jerry Hollendorfer into giving him a seven-month break. That was followed by third-place finishes in the Gotham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby that left Instagrand short of points to get into the Kentucky Derby.
Once considered by some ardent fans as a can’t-miss prospect for the Derby, Hidden Scroll looked again like a horse in search of water. Sent off an odds-on favorite on a fast track Saturday, Hidden Scroll (4-5) burned out after setting the early pace and finished third in a $75,000 seven-furlong allowance. Borracho (5-1) came from 5½ lengths back to win with Chase The Ghost (25-1) finished second when he moved past the fading Hidden Scroll, the Hard Spun colt ridden by José Ortiz. Since he won his debut by 14 lengths in the slop on Pegasus World Cup day at Gulfstream Park, the Juddmonte-owned, Bill Mott-trained colt has finished fourth, sixth and 11th with three different jockeys on fast tracks at distances of 7-9 furlongs. Let me know the next time he gets a race on a sloppy track.
Usually seen Fridays, Ron Flatter’s racing column from Louisville is posted daily at VSiN.com through Kentucky Derby weekend. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts and via Apple, Google and Stitcher.