As far as the 150,729 spectators at Churchill Downs knew, Maximum Security had completed his remarkable five-month rise from $16,000 claimer to Kentucky Derby champion.
Trainer Jason Servis embraced his brother John, who’d won the 2004 Derby with Smarty Jones.
But then came the startling announcement — the result of the race was not official, because Flavien Prat, the jockey of second-place finisher Country House, and another rider had objected to Maximum Security’s trip under Luis Saez.
For 23 minutes, fans and the connections of both horses waited with hushed tension as three track stewards reviewed the race. Finally, an even more stunning announcement boomed over the loudspeaker: Maximum Security was disqualified, and Country House, a 65-1 longshot, was the official winner of the 145th Derby. The first jewel of the Triple Crown had never before been decided by an in-race foul.
Fans booed the result, but Country House’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, said the stewards made the right decision. To his eye, Maximum Security drifted off the rail as the field turned for the stretch, causing at least one horse, War of Will, to stop in his tracks.
“There was definitely a foul in the race,” he said as he awaited the decision. “There were a couple of jocks that almost went down in there. If it was a maiden claimer on a week day, the winner would come down. It’s not supposed to matter that it was the Kentucky Derby.”
Mott did not blame Maximum Security’s rider, Saez, whom he often puts on his own horses. “My heart aches for him,” he said.
Servis reacted calmly to the staggering turn of events. “Right now, I’m OK,” he said moments after the disqualification. “Tomorrow, I might not be.”
He said he did not have a good view of the alleged foul.
Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, went from accepting to disbelieving the more he watched the replay in his track-side suite.
“I’ve seen $5,000 maiden claimers have much worse problems than this and not get disqualified,” he said. “I have not seen what I consider all the angles the stewards looked at. And after I look at those, I might say, ‘Wow, they made the right decision.’ Based on what I just saw, I think it was a very bad decision. I didn’t think that 20 minutes ago, but I’ve watched it five or six times.”
West joked that he had received 50 phone calls, some from people who don’t even like him, claiming the disqualification was an injustice. He said he did not see Maximum Security make contact with another horse in the replays he watched.
West and Servis indicated they would consider appealing the stewards’ decision if they have that option. “I have to study the film and review my legal options,” West said in a text to a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, two hours after the race. “I won’t know anything for a couple days — but I might.”
Chief steward Barbara Borden said the decision to disqualify Maximum Security was unanimous and that the video showed him affecting three horses — War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Country House with his drift off the rail. She said both Prat and Long Range Toddy’s rider, Jon Court, raised objections.
“The two horses inside of me had a lot more trouble than I did, but it did affect me anyway,” said Prat, who won his first Derby based on the disqualification.
The controversy partially obscured one of the greatest upset wins in Derby history and a career milestone for Mott, who was elected to the Hall of Fame 21 years ago but had never won the sport’s most-coveted race.
Mott always said his career would feel complete even without a Derby win. He had trained the great champion Cigar and won the Eclipse Award as the best in his profession three times. He knew the remarkable confluence of skill and luck required to get the right horse to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.
Still, he faced questions every year about the Derby-sized hole in his resume.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said afterward. “I’d be lying if I said it was any different. You always want to win with a clean trip and have everybody recognize the horse as the very good horse and for the great athlete that he is. I think due to the disqualification, probably some of that is diminished. But this is horse racing.”
Mott had two horses in the race, and the other one, Tacitus, was perceived as the real contender. Country House had won just once in six starts and in his last two races, had finished third in the Arkansas Derby and fourth in the Louisiana Derby. In a Derby widely considered difficult to call, he was a contender few handicappers bothered discussing.
His upset victory paid $132.40 for a $2 bet to win, $56.60 on a $2 bet to place and $24.60 for a $2 bet to show. He became the second longest shot ever to win the race behind Donerail, who won the 1913 Derby at 91-1 odds.
Omaha Beach started out as the morning-line favorite for the race, but trainer Richard Mandella scratched him from the field Wednesday after a scope found the colt was suffering from an entrapped epiglottis that hampered his breathing.
With Omaha Beach out, a field that top trainers already referred to as wide open became that much more unpredictable. Trainer Bob Baffert said there was almost no way to separate the top five contenders in the morning line, three of which came from his barn.
Baffert watched the race unfold from the paddock, unaware of the controversy to come. “It was like a kids’ soccer game,” he said after watching the field of 19 bunch together on the sloppy, rain-drenched track. His top finisher, fourth-place Improbable, could never fight through the traffic to find open running space.
Baffert had said Maximum Security should be the favorite. So he was not surprised to see the speedy colt move to the lead and hold it when none of the other contenders pushed the pace.
“I told you he was the horse to beat,” Baffert said.
No one would have said that a few months ago.
Last fall, Servis told the stable manager for West that the Maximum Security was average — at best. That’s why the colt was available for a $16,000 claim headed into his maiden race in December at Gulfstream Park.
He won by 10 lengths that day, and as he ran away from the competition in three subsequent races, Servis realized his initial assessment was wrong as could be. Maximum Security proved that with his performance in the Derby, though he did not ultimately win.
Talk usually turns quickly to the Derby winner’s chances in the Preakness and ultimately, the Triple Crown. But this controversy likely won’t vanish overnight.
The disputed finish comes at a time of general anxiety for the sport, which was rocked by a spate of 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park earlier this year. In Maryland, Baltimore officials are fighting to keep the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course while the Stronach Group contemplates moving it to Laurel Park.
Now, the racing world has another difficult subject to parse as the Triple Crown series moves to Maryland.