Kentucky Derby DQ Ruling Was Obvious Call: David Papadopoulos

(Bloomberg) -- To the casual observer, the outcome of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby was a bizarre one. And maddeningly unsatisfactory too.

That was made immediately clear to me at our annual Derby party as hostile question after hostile question was hurled my way in the aftermath of the racetrack’s decision to disqualify the first-place finisher, Maximum Security, and slide the second-place finisher, a 65-1 long shot named Country House, into the rain-soaked winner’s circle. President Donald Trump even vented Sunday morning about the race, declaring in a typically Trump-ian tweet that the ruling was nonsense: “The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby -- not even close.”

I get the frustration. And I get the confusion. The events that unfolded during and after the race were tough for all but the hardest of hard-core handicappers and gamblers to follow.

But this should be made clear: There was nothing truly controversial about the ruling. What Maximum Security did midway around the second turn -- jumping out several paths and dangerously impeding the progress of multiple horses -- is a foul. And it is grounds for disqualification. Every time. Without exception. Whether it’s the third race at Monmouth Park on a sleepy Thursday in late August or the 12th race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Kentucky Derby DQ Ruling Was Obvious Call: David Papadopoulos

That the second-place finisher was unaffected by the first-place finisher’s antics is, from a rules standpoint, irrelevant. When Maximum Security committed a foul against the eighth, 14th and 17th-place finishers, the racing stewards needed to put him behind those horses in the official order of finish. As a result, almost every other horse, including Country House, moved up one slot.

That’s how the game works. And it’s a system that, despite all the grumbling, makes perfect sense: How can a horse that interfered with rivals so egregiously that it prevented them from finishing farther up in the pack be allowed to keep his final position ahead of them? He can’t. Hence the disqualification. Gary West, Maximum Security’s owner, said Monday he will appeal the ruling. Good luck with that.

Kentucky Derby DQ Ruling Was Obvious Call: David Papadopoulos

So what exactly happened?

The version of events related by Maximum Security’s jockey, Luis Saez, squares pretty well with what is visible on the television monitor. While galloping along on the lead late in the race, Maximum Security appears to get suddenly spooked by the ruckus that the huge crowd in the track infield is making, and he darts sharply to the right. The colt is so startled that he commits a bad technical mistake with his footwork, which only serves to further drive him away from the position he held along the rail.

That was a major problem because he had rivals perched right on his outside flank. War of Will was the first to get hit. He in turn slammed into Long Range Toddy, who in turn banged into Bodexpress.

It is something of a miracle, frankly, that War of Will didn’t fall during the incident. He was put in a terribly perilous spot, with his front legs even briefly hitting Maximum Security’s hindquarters. By the time Saez managed to correct his horse and straighten him up, the damage was done: War of Will, who finished eighth, and Long Range Toddy, 17th, had been forced to alter course, losing precious momentum in the process. Bodexpress was sent careening toward the back of the pack and finished 14th.

Would one of these colts have won the Derby had they not be fouled? Most likely not. Bodexpress was already losing ground when the incident happened and Long Range Toddy was giving off early signs that he too was starting to tire in the mud. And while War of Will ran on tenaciously afterwards to finish just two lengths behind the third-place finisher, it appeared as if he was going to wind up a cut below the top flight on this day, regardless. We’ll never know the precise answer to that question, though.

Kentucky Derby DQ Ruling Was Obvious Call: David Papadopoulos

Now, there had never been a disqualification like this in the previous 144 editions of America’s marquee race. And there are some insiders who say that the stewards’ decision has to be seen in the context of the surge in thoroughbred fatalities this winter at Santa Anita Park, one of the country’s premier tracks. The racing industry in both California, where Santa Anita is located, and across the nation has been scrambling to come up with a policy response that would quell criticism from animal rights’ groups.

So the ruling, according to this argument, was -- at least, subconsciously -- an attempt by the industry to prove to the broader American public that it will not tolerate dangerous situations that imperil horses and riders.

Perhaps. It’s hard to know. The stewards clearly didn’t handle every aspect of the incident well. But I do know this: Maximum Security was correctly disqualified. And Country House, while second best to that horse, was correctly draped in a brilliant blanket of roses as darkness descended on Louisville Saturday night.

(David Papadopoulos, a senior editor, writes about the Triple Crown races for Bloomberg News. He is a voter in the thoroughbred industry’s annual Eclipse Awards.)

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