Trainer Bill Mott has accomplished many things in his Hall of Fame career. Eclipse Awards, Breeder’s Cups, a Dubai World Cup and a Belmont Stakes victory. At 6:53 p.m. Saturday, it appeared that another Derby had eluded Mott as Maximum Security, trained by Jason Servis and ridden by Luis Saez crossed the wire first and seemed destined for the Derby winner’s circle and racing immortality.
In the words of the great Lee Corso, “not so fast my friends,” as the Churchill Downs stewards disqualified Maximum Security for interference in the stretch and put up Mott’s Country House as the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Racing pundits, fans, industry insiders, bettors as well as the casual fans which are drawn to the “Run for the Roses” were flabbergasted as they witnessed two pieces of history. First, Mott, best known for conditioning Cigar one of the sport’s all-time greats, got off the schneid. Secondly, no other Kentucky Derby has ever ended in a disqualification.
Before today, 144 horses that crossed the wire first had a garland of roses placed on their back. Today, that all changed as the stewards, after taking around 15 minutes to reach a decision disqualified Servis’ horse. As the decision was announced, Mott took part in a muted celebration, obviously happy but not fully ebullient given the circumstances. Servis, who saw a Derby snatched away from him, retreated to the backside with little comment.
Disqualifications and the order of races being changed occur daily at tracks across the country. However, given the magnitude of the situation and the fact that the stewards did not file an inquiry, the decision is both puzzling and mind boggling. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione’s mount, War of Will made momentary contact with the hind quarters of Maximum Security at the top of the stretch. This interference had little to no bearing on the outcome of the race. Racing experts in the twittersphere speculated after the race that jockey Flavien Prat aboard Country House took a “shot in the dark” and lodged the claim of foul, as he was somewhat aware of what happened to the inside of him.
As the deliberations continued and the expressions on the faces of both Servis and Mott grew increasingly worried by the minute, it appeared where there was smoke there was fire. The producers in the NBC trucks did everything they could to add to the drama, zooming in on the supposed infraction and attempting to rationalize one of the most irrational decisions in the history of Triple Crown racing.
The fact remains, Country House didn’t win the Kentucky Derby on the track, he won it at the hands of a questionable, controversial decision. The outcome of the race was not determined on the muddy Churchill Downs strip, rather in a windowless room high above the track, deep in the bowels of the facility.
For his part, the normally even-keeled Mott appeared somewhat conflicted about the outcome, telling a gaggle of reporters trackside,
“You know, I don’t really like to win this way, I wish it was clean and we pulled away and won by five and didn’t have anything, you know, happening but this is what happened.”
Now, what happens next? Country House will enter the Preakness as a horse that ran a credible but by no means dominant race in the Kentucky Derby. Maximum Security who saw his unblemished record fall by the wayside will look to continue to assert himself as the best 3-year old in training. Before today, many questions surrounded Servis and the horse as he had only ran one Grade I race and entered the Derby on the heels of the three lackluster workouts. Saturday morning, Servis, borrowing a page from now suspended trainer Richard Dutrow blew out his colt, putting him through a strenuous workout a mere 10 hours before the gates sprung open.
Now, Maximum Security lived up to his billing and ran like a favorite should, digging in gamely and re-rallying mid-stretch to cross the wire first. In the immediate aftermath of the race, some racing insiders speculated that the controversy will spur more interest in the sport and that people will be talking about the outcome for days. For the everyday racing fan and supporters of the sport, who spend as much time handicapping a Thursday afternoon Belmont card as they do the Derby Day program, something just isn’t right about the outcome as the outcome of the race should’ve been decided down on the track and not in a room.