Op Ed: Horseracing Doesn’t Need This

Maximum Security with Luis Saez up was taken down as the Kentucky Derby winner. ©Eclipse Sportswire

It’s post Kentucky Derby Day plus two days, perhaps what will be remembered as the most famous, or infamously famous, running of the most famous horserace in America.

Let me start this obviously opinion piece by stating I love horses and I love horseracing.

To the minds of many, those two statements are inconsistent, especially at this moment when 23 horses died at Santa Anita Park during its tumultuous winter racing meet, resulting in protests that erupted from California to Kentucky, where vans protesting horseracing paraded around the entrance to the most famous of all American racing venues, Churchill Downs, in advance of the running of Kentucky Derby 145.

I refer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously ambivalent definition at times like this: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I make no claim of a “first-rate intelligence,” and I can balance these two opposing ideas: my love of both horses and of horseracing. But Saturday’s Kentucky Derby is making it difficult for me to function. So forgive me if I ramble a bit across several issues confronting America’s current version of The Sport of Kings.

Horses, in what can be derisively referred to as the “Thoroughbred industry,” die on a too-frequent basis on racetracks in 38 U.S. states, to say nothing of tracks in England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and… You get the picture. It is a massive worldwide industry with an equally massive mortality problem.

The reality of racing’s problems that came to a head Saturday at Churchill are such that even the President of the United States felt compelled to comment, by Twitter of course, on the decision by Churchill Downs stewards to award the blanket of red roses and the revered trophy to Country House, calling the decision one “based on political correctness.”

Trainer Bill Mott with jockey Flavien Prat celebrate controversial Kentucky Derby win. ©Getty Images

The 1 3/4 length winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified on the grounds he interfered with two horses before the turn into the final stretch, War of Will and Long Range Toddy. Objections were by Country House rider Flavien Prat and Long Range Toddy jockey Jon Court, but not by Tyler Gaffalione on War of Will, the most affected horse. Nor was the inquiry initiated by Churchill stewards.

The replay clearly shows Maximum Security moves out of his lane while in the lead. But, he is in the lead and jockey Luis Saez cannot see what horse is behind him. That would be War of Will, a closer who is looking for a path to the lead, moving up swiftly.

Had Saez deliberately moved to impede his competitor to the point of preventing their possible victory, the foul claim obviously would have been legitimate. But, this is not the Olympics 100-meter dash where runners have defined chalked lanes, particularly on a muddy rain-soaked track when the grooved track “lanes” are engorged by puddles of water. And the designated winner was not one of the two horses involved and most affected.

Post-race comments and interviews ranged from nervous and near-tears on the part of Maximum Security’s jockey Saez to testy from Country House trainer Bill Mott to gracious on the part of the eventual loser’s trainer Jason Servis and owner Gary West.

The stewards’ decision was explained in a post-race statement delivered by Chief Steward Barbara Borden, flanked by Stewards Butch Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer at a post-race press conference. They stated their decision was unanimous but, amid complaints about lack of transparency from some press in attendance, they refused to take questions.

Since then, the defiance on the part of the named winner’s camp has amplified and the graciousness on the part of the taken-down loser’s camp has evaporated.

Speaking on NBC Television’s Today Show from his California home Monday morning, Maximum Security owner Gary West acknowledged language in Kentucky Horse Racing Commission rules states that all decisions “shall be final,” but added, “I think this is something that’s big enough that the entire racing world is looking at this, and I think they deserve an opportunity to really know what is going on. I was a bit shocked and surprised that the stewards wrote a statement that was probably prepared by their lawyers and refused—literally refused—to take a single question from the media.  So they’ve been about as non-transparent about this thing as anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”

West would go on to say he believes the Derby field should return to a maximum of 14 as it was in the 1970s, that the 20-horse field is about money. “It’s just because they (Churchill Downs) can make more money that they risk horses’ lives and peoples’ lives to do that.

The connections of Maximum Security requested they review the replay tapes with the stewards following their decision, but were told “Absolutely not,” that the stewards had two more races to oversee, that the tapes would not be available for review until Thursday but that any appeal had to be filed within 48 hours, while the rules state there can be no appeal.

West further noted that stewards didn’t file their own inquiry, but rather took a closer look at the incident near the 5/16ths pole due to the two rider objections, from Prat and Court.

“Our horse was in the lead the entire way around,” West said. “They looked at exactly what the whole rest of the world looked at, and they didn’t file a stewards’ inquiry. So I can’t imagine that it was very obvious to them at the time.”

The stewards issued a statement after the race of about 100 words but did not allow for follow up, much to the annoyance of media in the Churchill Downs press room…and West.

“Winning it was the most euphoric thing Mary (West) and I have probably ever had in our lives,” West said of their feelings as Maximum Security hit the wire in front, “and the disappointment when they took the horse down for the first time in history—we were stunned, shocked and in total disbelief.”

Beyond the appeal, there is now talk that Maximum Security’s owners might challenge the decision in Federal Court if it not reviewed and reversed in their favor. Part of this decision to fight on no doubt results from public and press reaction to the decision, as split as the red-and-blue state political divide that currently exists in the United States.

“I want to see the video, I want to understand the facts, I want time to think about it,” West said. “Had they been cooperative, it might not have been an issue today, but they weren’t.”

Eventually, I believe everyone will wish they could turn back the clock, let the winner be the horse that crossed the line first or accept the controversial stewards’ decision and move on to Pimlico and the Preakness in two weeks where “revenge” could come in the form of a rematch.

But West said his horse will not make the trip for the Preakness. Country House will be in a Preakness gate confirmed trainer Bill Mott Sunday—”When you win the Derby, you pretty much have to go to the Preakness” he said with a smile—but it is likely the conversation in Baltimore surrounding the second jewel in the Triple Crown will be more about the Derby than the race at hand.

None of the participants should want this to drag on, particularly at this critical time in the history of the sport. At least, I would hope so. If it does, the only people who will be happiest are the most ardent opponents of the sport.

It was another sloppy Churchill Downs track Saturday, the fourth Derby in a row affected by rain, which had fallen for two hours prior to the race. This was Churchill Downs on Derby Day where young, mud-splattered, 1,100-pound horses are moving at 40 miles per hour, side-by-side, sometimes bumping, controlled with a strap and a stick by comparatively tiny 118-pound humans, coursing over a 1 1/4 mile oval around a curve to a stretch where over 150,000 bourbon, mint julep and beer-infused patrons scream their lungs out to the point where the grandstand actually shakes.

The most telling comment for me was from visibly shaken Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez, awaiting the stewards’ unfavorable decision while trying to explain why his horse moved away from the rail: “The crowd was screaming and he’s a baby, you know,” said the near-tearful jockey. “I straightened him as soon as I could.”

Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez and trainer Jason Servis await Churchill stewards unfavorable decision. ©Getty Images

Two years ago on the same muddy track, another “baby,” Thunder Snow, began bucking out of the starting gate and refused to run, fortunately pulled up safely by his jockey. And last year in the muddiest Derby in history, on a day when over three inches of rain created a quagmire, yet another “baby,” Mendelssohn, emerged completely engorged in mud along with jockey Ryan Moore who slowed his million-dollar charge to accept defeat and a last-place finish.

Conditions have always been part of racing but the mud, along with youth and the size of the field and the speed and the noise have been particularly testing in recent Derbys.

It seems increasingly unfair to these majestic animals, so unfair that Belmont racetrack cancelled a meet last Friday because of excessive rain. This is routine for an ordinary baseball game.

This, along with the deaths at Santa Anita some blame on the excessive rain and the condition of that track, and the fall of the start of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks when Positive Spirit and jockey Manny Franco fortunately emerged uninjured, should make racing authorities ponder how best to conduct their sport.

Horses, particularly Thoroughbred horses, are special. For those of us who aspired to, and succeeded in, spending part of our working lives with them, it is like living in a parallel universe where we are privileged to cross through and connect with beings we believe are wiser than most people recognize, often kinder than most people are with us in our daily interactions.

We love them.

And yet, we subject them and—let us not forget—their riders to the all-too-frequent possibility of injury and death for our entertainment and financial gain for some. They are modern-day gladiators and we, racing fans, unwittingly choose thumbs up or down.

Derby Week is a most special time in a most special place. As a friend wrote: “Louisville is the only place where people party all week for an event that lasts two minutes.”

Kentucky is magical for a horse lover. From the moment you deplane at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport, you feel the tug of horses and history. One of the first sites nearby is storied Calumet Farm, all white fences with red accents on a bed of Kentucky Bluegrass.

The iconic Calumet Farm, the home of Whirlaway, Citation and Alydar is one of the first sites near Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport. ©Richard R. Gross

For someone like myself who grew up in urban Philadelphia watching Affirmed and Alydar and Ruffian on a 13-inch Sony Trinitron television, my initial visit was like arriving at Oz. That feeling has never left with each subsequent visit.

But it is being tested, never more so than during this turbulent winter and spring amid the controversies at Santa Anita, now at Churchill. It feels like an equine version of the medieval Reformation with the Cathedral of Racing being challenged by protesters of “the faith.”

The iconic Calumet Farm, the home of Whirlaway, Citation and Alydar is one of the first sites near Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport. ©Richard R. Gross

Following Saturday’s controversial Derby, jockeys, trainers, owners and 150,000-plus now-sober fans awaited the decision of three people reviewing videotape replays six stories above the track in an area known as “the mansion.” Even the horses still being walked by their grooms seemed worried, heads down and tails hung low.

When the “Unofficial” sign on the huge Churchill board flashed “Official” and changed the order of finish from 7 to 20, fans actually booed. Loudly. No doubt some were disappointed bettors. But perhaps among them were the faithful booing videotape replays and decisions occurring in a “mansion,” not on a racetrack.

The parsing of endless replays has become part of sport: videotape reviews of NFL plays in New York and now baseball replays, “Cyclops” reviews of serves in tennis. It was not always this way. There was a time when it was accepted that a football catch was whatever a referee called a football catch. Baseball accepted the oft-rumored possibility that Bobby Thompson’s homerun—”The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”—resulted with the aid of a spotter with binoculars in the centerfield bleachers who stole the catcher’s sign and cued Thompson on what pitch was coming. John McEnroe’s complaints to the referee became as much a part of the entertainment element of tennis as the ball and the backhand.

How close are we to removing home plate umpires and having balls and strikes called by the next technological marvel?

The day before the Derby, I was speaking with a business acquaintance about her plans for the upcoming summer. “Well,” she chuckled, “it’s six weeks of Little League baseball going from park to park with my son.” Curious, I asked: “Are you one of those parents who scream at the umpire?” She responded soberly: “No, it’s a life lesson for him; the calls don’t always go your way and life isn’t always fair.”

Racing might have benefitted on Saturday if the jockeys and trainers and owners and stewards involved had learned that Little League Baseball lesson.

Breaking news: Kentucky Horse Racing Commission denies Maximum Security disqualification appeal. Stewards’ decisions are considered final.