The wild conclusion to Saturday’s 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) typified the whole trail – plot twists that left the three-year-old picture as sloppy as the Churchill Downs track. The disqualification of a daylight winner in Maximum Security, and elevation of 65-1 shot Country House, polarized the racing world and angered many fans. As my colleague Vance Hanson has ably summarized, Maximum Security committed a blatant foul in veering out and imperiling War of Will, who amazingly was not brought down in the process. That was the decisive point since War of Will was traveling smartly into contention, unlike the others hampered in the domino effect, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. Inadvertent spooking, or otherwise innocent intent, can’t remove this central fact of the case. Once we move from the “guilt” phase to the penalty phase, however, that’s where the controversy erupts. According to the rules, Maximum Security’s infraction arguably cost War of Will a better placing than eighth, and therefore demotion is warranted. The stewards’ decision was completely commensurate with the law, although demoting him all the way below Long Range Toddy was less defensible on the evidence. Yet in an attempt to do justice to the aggrieved, I’d argue that another injustice is being committed. The purpose of any race, above all a classic, is to determine the best horse. When the best horse on the day is disqualified in favor of the soundly beaten runner-up, it’s understandable for disagreement to break out. As a number of industry voices pointed out in the aftermath, other major racing jurisdictions around the world operate under rules that would have allowed Maximum Security to keep the trophy. Under these “Category 1” rules, the standard isn’t whether the interfered horse was cost a better placing, but rather if there’s strong evidence that he or she would have finished in front of the horse responsible for the interference. In this case, the stewards would decide whether War of Will was likely to have beaten Maximum Security if he hadn’t been hampered. That’s a much higher burden of proof for a disqualification than if he were cost a better placing, the current “Category 2” rules that guide stewards in the United States and Canada. Since War of Will regrouped, and raced in contention for much of the stretch before tiring, it’s going beyond the evidence to rule that he would otherwise have passed Maximum Security. The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Chief Steward, Kim Kelly, explained how the decision looks different from a Category 1 perspective in a May 5 South China Morning Post article:

Under the ‘Category Two’ rules as I understand them, the stewards in Kentucky were perfectly entitled to do what they did. However, certainly in Hong Kong, there would be no changes to the placings. He was the dominant horse in the race. No case could be successfully argued that those horses, if not for that interference, would have finished in front of (Maximum Security). At the top of the straight it appeared as though he was under siege but over the 200m (final furlong) he actually extended away from the field, so he was clearly the best horse. I’d be surprised if any ‘Category One’ country would change the placings. It’s likely, from the shots that I’ve seen, that the jockey would’ve incurred some form of penalty.
That brings us to an alternative remedy to disqualifying the best horse on the day: fines or suspensions for the jockey aboard the offender, in this case Luis Saez. But does such a system promote the safety and welfare of both horse and rider? In a paper supporting the United States’ changing to Category 1 rules, the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation contends that it does militate against dangerous riding while offering a more consistent standard of adjudication. And consistency, after all, is what connections and bettors alike crave. Protecting our equine and human athletes and preventing an accidental Derby winner like Country House? Sounds right to me, unless opponents of Category 1 can propose persuasive counterarguments. Now moving away from the “third rail” and back onto less controversial ground: Considering that Omaha Beach was two-for-two in the slop, the morning-line favorite had every right to deliver another top-notch effort in Derby 145, and his scratch looms as the most gnawing “what-if.” But for Omaha Beach’s entrapped epiglottis, the Maximum Security fracas may have been over a minor award. Or on a more sober note, perhaps Omaha Beach was spared potential disaster had he been alongside when Maximum Security veered out. Game Winner was heroic despite a virtually hopeless trip. While I freely admit my bias in favor of my principal rooting interest, the objective evidence backs me up. Not only was he behind the eight-ball after his problematic start for Joel Rosario – color me shocked that he was next to last early – but he was also hung out unconscionably wide. According to Trakus, Game Winner negotiated 103 feet (!) more than Maximum Security. That’s far in excess of his four-length margin of defeat. His never-say-die attitude rallying down the stretch to cross the wire sixth (elevated to fifth) reminded me of another Bob Baffert juvenile champion, Lookin at Lucky, who soldiered on after being clobbered in the 2010 Derby. (The racing fates must have had a good laugh since Lookin at Lucky is the sire of Country House.) With a halfway sensible passage through Derby 145, Game Winner quite possibly threatens Maximum Security, and owners Gary and Mary West might have had the exacta. Invoking the Lookin at Lucky parallel, might there be a rider change for Game Winner? The work-in-progress Country House finally put it all together. A fan since his show-stopping maiden win at Gulfstream Park, I was delighted by his runner-up effort, even amid all the goofy lugging-in, in the Risen Star (G2). But the expected move forward in the Louisiana Derby (G2) didn’t happen, and it took a third-place swing through the last-chance-saloon in the Arkansas Derby (G1) to scrape into the Derby 145 field. So I’d infamously dropped him from my top 10 because he just didn’t appear to be progressing. The Run for the Roses was coming too soon, and maybe the light bulb would come on for Saratoga or even next year. Whether things just clicked under Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s tutelage, or the rider switch to Flavien Prat was a key factor, Country House worked out a far more sensible trip than imagined. And Game Winner got the trip I envisioned for Country House! Master Fencer vindicated the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been supportive of attracting Japanese participation, but would have preferred to see one ranked higher than fourth on the Japan Road leaderboard. My biggest hang-up with Master Fencer was that he wasn’t the best dirt sophomore in his homeland. But after his blistering charge, altering course from dead last turning for home, to snatch seventh (placed sixth) and nip at Maximum Security’s heels past the wire, he not only proved his merit. Master Fencer also prompted the tantalizing “what if” about his presumed betters. If we’d lured Japan Road winner Der Flug – or fellow unbeaten Chrysoberyl who missed the points races – might they have gone even closer? All the more reason to look forward to Kate Hunter’s recruiting efforts for 2020. Country House in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs