Since life is not fair, few will remember 10 years from now that on May 18, 2019, War of Will won the 144th Preakness.
The indelible memory of Saturday’s big race at Pimlico Race Course will be the frightening gate accident that sent jockey John Velazquez hurtling through the air and a riderless Bodexpress running alongside the rest of the field during the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown series.
War of Will ended up with the big money, but Bodexpress ended up being a national internet hero.
Miraculously, no one was hurt and the race was not disrupted, but some questions linger about what exactly happened the second or two before it began and why Bodexpress was not ruled a nonstarter by the track stewards.
Velazquez said soon after the race that the horse “wasn’t behaving well” and threw him off balance right as the gates were opening, but the Hall of Fame jockey also told CNN the next morning there was a “miscommunication between us and the assistant starter.”
Bob Baffert, the trainer of Preakness favorite Improbable, even took some of the blame, saying his horse acted up in the gate and that unsettled Bodexpress.
“My horse,’’ Baffert said, “caused all the problems.”
If it had not happened in a Triple Crown race, it would have been filed under the heading of “stuff happens,” because mishaps like that take place every week at racetracks around the world. But Bodexpress’ nationally televised romp around Old Hilltop put a spotlight on the incident and created a social media buzz calling for some further explanation.
For example, why didn’t the stewards declare Bodexpress a nonstarter and refund the bets placed on him?
Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said Tuesday that the stewards reviewed video of the start multiple times to determine whether anything happened to deny the horse a fair start.
“If they had thought the horse got an unfair start — and they have done that before — they would have declared it a nonstarter,” Hopkins said. “In this particular case, in their judgment, the horse had a fair start and there was not any outside interference that prevented that.”
Another horse acting up a few gates away would not constitute outside interference. That determination would more likely come if the stewards felt the gate opened improperly or the assistant starter failed to release the horse in a timely manner. Hopkins said neither of those things happened.
“No, because the horse did what he did on his own,” Hopkins said. “He was just fractious in the gate and the split-second the starter dispatched the field is when this horse started to buck. In all cases, the assistant starters do keep the horse steady right before those gates open and then automatically turn the horse loose. They are there to help the horse start and keep the rider safe.”
If it appeared Bodexpress came out slower than the other horses, it was because he lurched backward right as the gates were opening.
“I put a lot of faith in my stewards,” Hopkins said. “They made a judgment call and I think they made the proper call.”
The impact of the opposite ruling would have affected the amount of money in the betting pool and subtly influenced the payouts, but it would not have been noticeable to anyone but the bettors who would have gotten to refund any tickets they bought that involved Bodexpress, which went off as a 20-1 long shot.
The reduction in the pool would have cost The Stronach Group its percentage of those refunded bets, but the stewards act independently of the track owners and there is no reason to think they failed to do that in this case.
We need only to look back at the Kentucky Derby for evidence that race stewards are capable of making tough decisions that can be costly to both track owners and the industry.
The disqualification of strong Triple Crown candidate Maximum Security for impeding several other horses was a huge blow to the Preakness and potentially the Belmont Stakes, but it was the correct decision that protected the integrity and credibility of the sport.
So, file that — and Saturday’s craziness — as a compelling chapter in the history of the Triple Crown series, and be thankful Velazquez is feeling fine and we’re not still talking about Pimlico’s plumbing.