The Kentucky Burden And Its Stormy Aftermath

Published: May 11, 2019 at 07:00 am


The Kentucky Derby has often been referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” and this year’s 145th running of the Kentucky Derby was no exception, unless your money was on a horse named Maximum Security.

The two-minute race is the longest-running sporting event in the US, dating back to 1875, and it finished in dramatic style on the first Saturday of May 2019. What makes the day so unlike any other US sporting event are the celebrities, hats, glamour, history, wagering, traditions, signature mint juleps, and most of all — the horses. This year, we can add the first-time disqualification to the history books and the haunting finish of a 65-1 long shot taking home the blanket of roses and the gold trophy, commonly referred to by the Derby set as horse racing’s “Holy Grail.”

Everyone should put a trip to the Kentucky Derby on their bucket list because it's unlike anything you’ll ever experience. I’ve attended the Derby three times and could have done without two. It’s crowded, noisy, visibility is dreadful, and each time I’ve attended, Mother Nature has pulled the ultimate prank by releasing flood waters worthy of Moses escaping Pharaoh through the Red Sea.

After early favorite Omaha Beach was scratched due to a medical issue, I tried a new strategy this year and placed a $2 Win bet on every starter entered in the Derby. This decision paid off handsomely when 65-1 odds Country House was declared the winner, paying out $132.40 for every $2 wagered. I’ve never done that before, but then again, I wasn’t convinced that the field of 21 horses was that outstanding, with everyone having a chance to win horse racing’s most prestigious prize.

The size of the field, 21 horses, is concerning. The start looks like a cavalry charge, with riders jockeying for the best positions and horses frequently clipping heels or bumping each other as they thunder down the stretch in hopes of crossing the finish line first and their chance to grab the Holy Grail.

When the mud had settled, it was tough to watch the best horse in the race taken down on the tote board and see the smiles and happiness of the “winning” connections reduced to tears, disappointment, and in some cases, anger. There is no doubt: it's a tough pill to swallow. But how often have we heard the expression, “That’s horse racing!” Having grown up in the world of racing, its an expression I’ve come to loathe.

So, did the racing stewards get it right? You bet they did, and they were in a no win, unenviable situation. Could it have gone the other way and the original results upheld? Sure it could have — there’s a case for both sides. However, integrity does still matter in this day and age. While many of us are left wondering if the moral compass still exists, their actions undoubtedly proved it’s alive and well.

The three racing stewards, led by Barbara Borden, charged with overseeing the rules and regulations of Kentucky racing clearly demonstrated that their own moral compasses were working that day. Collectively and unanimously, they made the difficult decision to take the winner down. After extensive review and watching multi-angle videos for more than 20 minutes, they courageously made the heartbreaking decision to disqualify the perceived winner.

Was he the best horse? On May 4, 2019, I believe he was. Was it intentional? Absolutely not. It appeared that something distracted him and he lugged out to avoid it, causing him to run out of his lane and impede the forward progress of those behind him.

Could the stewards have done better? Yes, of course they could have, but they are only human and making split-second decisions on horse racing’s biggest day was obviously not something they were readily prepared for.

The three things the stewards could have done to make the situation more tenable were:

1. Illuminate the INQUIRY sign on the tote board the moment the objection was registered.

2. The length of time, 22 minutes, was painful. It was fairly obvious that interference had occurred.

3. Rather than issuing a 107-word statement to the press, a simple explanation and Q&A would have gone a long way to alleviate the bewilderment experienced by the spectators, fans, and racing pros alike.

Jockey Luis Saez, trainer Jason Servis, Maximum Security, and the connections will race again, but not at the Preakness Stakes. What could have been a media coup for racing from the ensuing rematch will not happen, in part because the owners have no incentive or intention to run for the Black-Eyed Susans at the Pimlico Racecourse. They’ve opted to regroup and plan for a rematch at the Belmont Stakes. And it was later announced that Country House will not race in the Preakness.

Let’s face it, this has been an exceptionally difficult year for horse racing. With 23 unanswered horse deaths at the Santa Anita race course earlier this year and a disqualification at the Kentucky Derby, I believe that racing has reached a defining moment and needs to make some serious decisions as to how they plan to proceed from this point forward. It's a sport that is on the verge of collapse if the powers that be don’t clean up their act and put the safety of the horses and riders first. Changes need to be instituted because the industry has failed at self regulation, and the public is watching.

The sport of horse racing is deeply rooted in hundreds of years of tradition. Its been 145 years since Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, yet the sport is the last to modernize its platform. In recent decades, the animal rights movement has mobilized, and the expectations of the public has changed. People will continue to question a sport that, despite alternative options, has been slow to change.

Let’s face the fact that horse racing is at a crossroads — it will be interesting to see what direction they choose to take.

Margaret A. Reed, PhD, is the coauthor of the best-selling book The Dogs of Camelot, an AKC dog show judge, thoroughbred racehorse owner, principal of Canine Training and Behavior Services LLC, and she serves on the board of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, James A Baker Institute for Animal Health.

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