After an interminable review by the stewards in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (G1), they got it right.
Luis Saez was able to put Maximum Security on the lead despite many challenges on his outside from Long Range Toddy and BODEXPRESS. They raced as a team through a demanding pace over an extremely wet track with WAR OF WILL stalking the trio of leaders down on the inside. Tyler Gaffalione was having trouble getting War of Will to relax as the son of War Front was throwing his head, full of run with nowhere to go.
The demands of the early pace and tiring track were taking their toll around the far turn as the pace slowed down. Gaffalione could potentially see that Maximum Security might not be backing up so he was going to have to go after him. Moving off the rail and bumping with Long Range Toddy, he found room to go after Maximum Security.
One stride later, Maximum Security in front of War of Will, drifted out. The NBC slow-motion cameras showed Maximum Security’s hind legs intersected with War of Will’s lead leg and for a fleeting moment, it looked like the sport of horse racing in America was about to come to an end.
Had War of Will gone down, it would have caused a chain reaction behind him on national TV with more eyes on our sport than any other time of the year during a crisis time for the sport. Thank goodness, Gaffalione was able to pull War of Will off of Maximum Security and avoid catastrophe.
No sooner had this incident happened, Saez seemingly went back to the inside and to tighten up on Johnny Velazquez aboard CODE OF HONOR. Straightened away in the run down the homestretch, the only real threat came from 65-1 longshot COUNTRY HOUSE, who had raced wide every step of the way. Maximum Security was able to hold his lead, Country House was an improbable second and Code of Honor held on for third over a fast-closing TACITUS.
Now here is where it almost went off the rails.
Despite everyone seeing the herd turning for home, there was no steward’s inquiry. Flavien Prat, rider of Country House, claimed foul against Saez aboard Maximum Security even though he was seemingly barely affected by what happened to his inside. According to the official chart of the race, that is the only claim of foul. Nothing from Gaffalione, who had the biggest issue, and nothing from Velazquez, whose issue was smaller. Nothing from Jon Court aboard Long Range Toddy.
At this point, the analysis focused on did the foul, which definitely happened, affect the outcome of the race?
Who is to say that War of Will was not going to pull up alongside Maximum Security and fight him to the wire?
At a crucial moment of the race, as he is basically out of oxygen, another horse forces his rider to pull up to avoid clipping heels. He gets penalized for not running stronger through the stretch and the horse that caused him to avoid clipping heels gets rewarded? I don’t think so but I know I am in a minority in my position.
There is a movement to adopt rules where the stewards, in all states, would have the right to determine whether the foul against the horse cost that horse a placing. It would have ruled that War of Will was not going to pass Maximum Security and would have let the result stand.
What is missing from that scenario is how do we keep the sport as safe as possible?
Breakdowns are not just horses getting injured. Sometimes they are caused by traffic problems and sometimes they are caused by errors from connections, jockeys and trainers. We can’t legislate against bad decisions but we can have a stronger deterrent.
If you know where the line is, you will go up to it as close as possible. If the line gets tighter, you will still go up to it as close as possible, but the line is now tighter. Riders ride to what they can get away with. Maybe after Saturday, where the stewards faced the ultimate challenge in a race that is sometimes viewed with the reputation that anything goes, all races will be adjudicated in a way that our sport is safer than ever.
PHOTO: Maximum Security (pink cap) comes off the inside and into the path of War of Will, with Country House on the outside, on the turn of the 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2019 (c) Horsephotos.com/Lauren J. Pomeroy