Analysis: Horse racing under microscope again with Derby DQ

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a slow-to-evolve, tradition-laden sport, the Kentucky Derby might have set the standard for race officiating with the disqualification of first-place finisher Maximum Security.

The pressure was tremendous on the stewards at Churchill Downs to apply the same rules in the sport’s showcase event that they would any other day of the week. Horses get their number taken down all the time in lesser races for various infractions.

The DQ on Saturday cost bettors backing Maximum Security $9 million in losses. The colt’s owners, Gary and Mary West, would have received $1.8 million for first place. Jockey Luis Saez’s share of the purse would have been $180,000. Little-known trainer Jason Servis was dealt a devastating blow, too.

So perhaps it’s the sign of a new era in racing when officiating will take some of the tactics out of the game, similar to what’s happened in other pro sports.

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Hockey has all but eliminated bench-clearing brawls, with fighting limited to each teams’ designated goon going one-on-one. The NFL tightened up the rules on pass interference to the point where contact causes referees to toss a penalty flag.

Why should racing be any different? Across sports, officiating has become more intrusive with advances in technology, and the games change as a result.

Horses get knocked around and lose position in the 20-horse stampede that defines the Derby. As five-time winner Bob Baffert said last week, “It’s all about the trip.”

Stewards could issue DQs in any given year for the chaotic 1¼-mile Derby. It’s a rough race by virtue of so many inexperienced horses charging 40 mph over a distance they’ve never attempted, in front of the biggest, noisiest crowd they’ll ever see, and ridden by jockeys with a burning desire to win even if it means taking higher risks.

No one illustrated that daring-do better than three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel. He earned the nickname “Bo-rail” for his rail-skimming rides in contrast to most jockeys who prefer keeping their horses outside and potentially clear of trouble.

Maximum Security became the first Derby horse disqualified in 145 years for an infraction on the track. The stewards ruled the front-running colt interfered with War of Will traveling close behind as they approached the top of the stretch, beginning a chain of near-disastrous events.

War of Will almost clipped heels with Maximum Security before interfering with Long Range Toddy. Then Long Range Toddy bothered Bodexpress, causing him to bump slightly into Country House, who crossed the wire second behind Maximum Security.

Maximum Security led throughout the race, and 65-1 shot Country House rallied after racing ninth in the early going.

“Was Maximum Security the best horse in the race? Yes, but did he impede some horses? Yes,” Terry Meyocks, CEO of The Jockeys’ Guild, said Monday. “Are we lucky we didn’t have some major catastrophe? Definitely.”

If racing thought it had image problems with 23 dead horses at Santa Anita this winter, a potential multihorse spill in the final turn of the biggest race of the year watched by millions worldwide would have dealt a body blow to the already struggling industry.

Saez said Maximum Security shied away from the noise of 150,729 fans and “may have ducked out a little.”

Video shows Maximum Security switched leads early on the final turn and in doing so shifted out. When the colt switched back to the correct lead, he shifted back in.

“This horse bolted, it reacted to something,” Meyocks said. “Luis tried to correct it as soon as possible and maybe he overcorrected.”

Riders can’t completely control a 1,000-pound racehorse, but what happens in the saddle is their ultimate responsibility. The same is true for trainers, who are charged with the care of their horses regardless of circumstance.

Gary Stevens, a three-time Derby winner during his Hall of Fame career, believes Saez should not be blamed.

“Horse appears to shy away from the glare off lights on water puddle on inside rail causing him to shift to right lead causing him to duck out,” Stevens tweeted . “Not jocks fault.”

The stewards themselves could have posted the inquiry sign, which lets bettors know that video gets reviewed for a possible infraction. That didn’t happen.

Instead, it was jockeys Flavien Prat (Country House) and Jon Court (Long Range Toddy) who filed objections, triggering the 22-minute review that resulted in the DQ.

Except for a brief statement read a few hours after the race by Kentucky chief steward Barbara Borden, who didn’t take questions from the media, there has been no further explanation.

Unlike the major U.S. professional sports, horse racing lacks a league office or commissioner to oversee the game. The 38 racing states set their own rules involving medication and safety. Typically, a punishment handed down in one jurisdiction will be honored in another, but there is little that requires it.

“Our industry has never worked well together,” Meyocks said. “We need to have consistent rules throughout the world.”

The still unexplained horse deaths at Santa Anita have sparked a flurry of abrupt changes in medication and safety rules that are reverberating throughout the industry. A coalition of tracks is vowing to eliminate the use of the anti-bleeding race-day medication Lasix by 2021.

Prat and his fellow riders used a newly redesigned cushioned riding crop in the Derby, also the result of the fallout from Santa Anita.

“That’s perception No. 1 against us: We whip horses and we don’t,” Meyocks said. “If anyone abuses a horse, they should be fined or suspended.”

The Derby proved an education for the casual fan — most of whom tune in only during Triple Crown season — about the rules of racing.

The booing at Churchill Downs traveled quickly onto social media, with opinions expressed all the way up to the White House.

President Donald Trump tweeted : “The Kentucky Derby decision was not a good one. … Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby — not even close!”

The clear winner in the Derby mess was NBC Sports, which boasted 18 million TV-only viewers when the race ended before peaking at 18.5 million for the post-race coverage. The DQ controversy could provide a boost for the Preakness on May 18, even if a rematch between Maximum Security and Country House appears unlikely.

West said Monday that Maximum Security will “definitely not” run in Baltimore.

There’s still a chance the two horses could meet again June 8 in the Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Even if they don’t go head-to-head, the uproar from this Derby will continue to echo across racing.

“We’re in a different era,” Meyocks said, “and we need to look at the bigger picture and always need to try to improve our image.”

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