Grooms chatted while mucking stalls and bathing horses an hour before sunrise. It felt like a typical morning at Churchill Downs, except that it wasn’t.
On the day after the Kentucky Derby, the backstretch buzzed about the only on-track disqualification of the winner in the race’s 145-year history. Twenty-two minutes after undefeated 9-2 second-choice Maximum Security crossed the wire first, he was taken down for interference leaving the far turn and placed 17th. Runner-up Country House, a 65-1 shot, was awarded the win.
Trainer Bill Mott called his first Derby victory “bittersweet.” Instead of being able to savor the greatest triumph of a Hall of Fame career, he was put on the defensive.
“I feel terrible that I had to apologize for winning,” Mott said early Sunday morning. “I hate to say something as silly as I’m sorry that I won. I’m not upset about winning, but I don’t think anybody wants to win that way. It was just such a weird way to go to the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby.
“I just wanted the owners to enjoy the moment and not feel sorry about winning.”
There was loud booing when the DQ was announced. Many people venting were among those who bet $8,979,537 to win, place and show on Maximum Security.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s horses, Cutting Humor (10th) and Spinoff (18th), were not interfered with. Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, backed the stewards, racing’s umpiring crew.
“It probably was the toughest call anyone ever had to make,” Pletcher told Newsday. “If you go by the rulebook, it was the right call. If anything good comes out of it for racing, it showed that racing would make the right call at the biggest moment. But it was a call that had to be made.
“The stewards didn’t swallow the whistle. I think it’s a great message for the integrity of the sport at a time when we’ve been under fire.”
Pletcher was referencing the 23 fatal breakdowns at Santa Anita from Dec. 26 to March 30.
There had been no disqualification in the Derby, notorious for being a very rough race, since 1984, when Gate Dancer was dropped from fourth to fifth for interference. In 1968, Derby winner Dancer’s Image was placed last three days later because the drug phenylbutazone was found in his postrace urine test.
“This was a difficult decision because it was the Kentucky Derby,” Mott said. “I don’t think it would have been a difficult decision if it had been the first race on the card. I really believe that the call made yesterday was good for the integrity of the sport.”
Luis Saez said Maximum Security was spooked approaching the stretch by the famous Derby “wall of noise” from the crowd of 150,729. His colt veered out two or three paths, severely impeding War of Will and Long Range Toddy and slightly bothering Country House.
Allen Hardy, assistant to trainer Mark Casse, said War of Will was lucky he didn’t fall beneath Tyler Gaffalione, who had to check sharply and momentarily sat in the saddle. A spill near the front of a tightly bunched field of 19 would have been a disaster and racing’s worst nightmare.
“Our horse is lucky to be alive,” Hardy said. “If he goes down, seven or eight other horses go down. That was very scary. But [War of Will] is OK, maybe just a couple scratches.”
Mott said War of Will’s chances to win were compromised most. Two jockeys, Flavien Prat, on Country House, and Jon Court, on Long Range Toddy, lodged the objections against Maximum Security, the stewards said in a statement.
Mott and Shug McGaughey agreed that Maximum Security, not Saez, caused the trouble. McGaughey trains Code of Honor, who rallied up the rail for third and was elevated to second. Mott’s fourth-place finisher, Tacitus, was placed third.
“I very strongly believe that it was the horse,” McGaughey said. “I’m sure it caught Luis off guard. I don’t think it was Saez’s fault. He tried to keep the horse straight, but it happened in two or three seconds and the horse is going 35 miles an hour.”
Mott said he and Jason Servis, the trainer of Maximum Security, crossed paths after the race. “I saw Jason when he was leaving the track. He was very gracious and said congratulations,” Mott said. “I told him I was sorry it happened this way.”
Servis texted Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune, saying he would not be at the track Sunday.
The controversy stirred the pot on television, radio and social media. “Racing is going to be in the news the next couple of weeks,” McGaughey said.
Mott thinks so, too. He said, “I think this Derby is going to be talked about for a long time.”
President Trump already is. On Sunday morning he tweeted: “It was a rough and tumble race on a wet and sloppy track. Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby. Not even close.”
Notes & quotes: Mott said no decision has been made, but “if you have the Derby winner, you’re supposed to go to the Preakness. I don’t think there’s any pressure for Tacitus to go.” . . . Servis said Saturday that he hadn’t yet thought about the Preakness for Maximum Security . . . Pimlico spokesman David Joseph named these horses as Preakness prospects: War of Will, Bodexpress, Always Smiling, Anothertwistafate, Signalman, Laughing Fox, Owendale, Mr. Money and Bourbon War.