Handicapping this year’s Kentucky Derby, with so many horses on equal footing, proved to be difficult. But I had a strategy and chose Maximum Security based on that strategy.
At first, the Derby unfolded just as I had planned it in my head: Maximum Security going out to the front, followed by War of Will, who did not want to get trapped along the rail. But the first quarter was mercurial, and I thought my plan was crumbling before my eyes; the half mile wasn’t much slower, and I wondered if Maximum Security was burning himself out. Take the lead and slow the pace, my plan screamed.
I watched as the horse continued to lead a close field into the far turn. He then careened off course several feet, and then corrected himself as Code of Honor and War of Will made their move on either side of him.
I thought he was finished, spent, as the two horses seemed ready to pass him. But he had experience in the mud, and he fought valiantly to find solid footing in the slop at Churchill. As he crossed the finish line almost two lengths ahead of a surprising Country House, I flung my hands in the air in triumph. My horse had won.
Or had he?
The unofficial status seemed to loom on the board forever, and NBC began to show replays of the now-famous interference call – Maximum Security veering into the path of War of Will, almost causing War of Will to go down.
I felt sick to my stomach. I tried to rationalize the infraction: It wasn’t that serious. Surely they would never take down a number from the Kentucky Derby. War of Will tried to go where he couldn’t.
Then came the announcement: Country House, a maiden winner who had not even won a stakes race, was now the winner of the most prestigious race in America. And my horse, the previously unbeaten Maximum Security, was demoted all the way down to 17th.
I was outraged. I went to Twitter and Facebook to fuel my anger and found many others like me who couldn’t believe what had happened and criticized the stewards’ decision. But I also found some who were saying rules are rules, and Maximum Security broke them. Too bad, but that’s horse racing. That made me even angrier. But my mind went back to the race, and I tried hard to beat down the doubts that were still present.
Then I saw the evidence. The slow-motion videos showing Maximum Security moving over into War of Will’s path, and jockey Tyler Gaffalione sharply turning War of Will to avoid a collision. The still frames implying that the two horses’ legs touched several times.
I made my own decision. I didn’t need the Internet to tell me Maximum Security had impeded War of Will’s path.
Did it make my defeat any easier to swallow? No, it made it worse. Maximum Security got spooked, either by a drunken crowd in the infield or a photographer’s flash, and ran away from it. Jockey Luis Saez quickly corrected the colt’s path across the track, but the damage was done.
According to Kentucky racing regulations, a horse is disqualified if he or she “swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey.” That’s exactly what happened.
The colt may or may not have noticed that he didn’t make it to the winner’s circle Saturday. For a few minutes, Saez found joy in a sport that had killed his younger brother four years earlier. And during that same time, trainer Jason Servis thought that he had done what his brother John had accomplished 15 years earlier with Smarty Jones. But the celebration – that feeling that you have won the Kentucky Derby – was gone in a flash.
Maximum Security ran his heart out. He found a second gear, even when War of Will and Code of Honor seemed on the verge of passing him. He won grinding away and was clearly the best horse in the gargantuan field of 19.
And now he is replaced by a longshot who had previously won only one race in six tries, and who barely got into the Derby. And his name will be followed by an asterisk.
Maximum Security is that asterisk. And it will bother me for years to come.
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