Jason Servis was overcome with emotion. His undefeated colt Maximum Security had just led all the way in the Kentucky Derby, the world’s most famous race. Suddenly, the dream of every thoroughbred trainer was all his, the ultimate triumph.
He thought he’d matched his brother’s feat of training a Derby winner. After John Servis won in 2004, also on a sloppy track, with undefeated Smarty Jones, he gave the garland of roses to Jason. Now Jason was going to phone their father, Joe Servis, a former state steward in West Virginia. It would be one of the greatest “Hey, pop, I did it, too” moments in racing history.
“I want to call my dad,” Jason Servis told NBC. “It’s going to be real emotional for me. I’m trying hard to keep it together. I’m about to lose it. My brother won it, now I won it.”
Or so he thought. And then it happened. The objection sign flashed on the tote board, and Servis and jockey Luis Saez stared at the lights that threatened to darken their day and cancel their place in history.
As Maximum Security approached the stretch on the sloppy track, the screaming of the crowd of 150,729 jolted him. He spooked briefly and veered out two or three paths, bothering War of Will and Long Range Toddy, and to a lesser extent Country House, who finished a nonthreatening second, 1¾ lengths behind.
No horseman or horseplayer is ever comfortable sweating out an objection or an inquiry, but no horse ever had lost the great race in the stewards’ room. Still, as Churchill Downs’ three umpires watched the replays over and over, simultaneously from different angles, the possibility of a DQ loomed. Sill, probably not.
After 22 minutes, the decision of stewards Barbara Borden, Butch Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer was announced. Maximum Security would be DQ’d from first to 17th for interference.
(In 1968, Dancer’s Image was disqualified from first after Butazolidin was found days later in a postrace urine test.)
Many held tickets on the 9-2 second choice that went from golden to worthless, so there was loud booing. The shocking call also didn’t sit well with many who were not financially involved. In the press room, there was shock and outrage.
I thought the stewards made the wrong call. Yes, Maximum Security bothered those three horses, but I don’t think any of them had a chance to win. It was a foul, but hardly one worthy of a DQ in the world’s most famous race. Over the years many worse violations were ignored by the Churchill stewards.
No Derby horse had been taken down since 1984, when Gate Dancer went from fifth to fourth for stretch interference. The Derby is notorious for being insanely rough. So in the previous 34 runnings, no horse did anything to merit a disqualification? Suddenly, the Kentucky stewards go by the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. As the GEICO commercials say: “Surprising.”
The stewards issued this statement:
“The riders of the 18 [Long Range Toddy] and the 20 [Country House] lodged objections against the 7 horse [Maximum Security], 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 the 1 [War of Will], in turn interfering with the 18 and the 20.
“Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify No. 7 and place him behind the 18, the lowest-placed horse that he bothered.”
The stewards took no questions, and about a hundred would have been asked.
Servis, and hundreds of thousands of others, disagreed.
“I don’t think it changed the outcome of the race,” he said. “It looks like something scared him in the infield, but I haven’t been able to watch it that close. It looked like he ducked out a little bit. [The disqualification] hasn’t sunk in yet, but it will.”
Unless Servis wins another Derby for real, he’ll take the heartbreak to the grave. And even if he does, he’ll wonder about the one that got away because it was taken away.