Kentucky Derby controversy puts eyes on jockey etiquette going into Preakness

Since Maximum Security became the first Kentucky Derby champion to be disqualified in the race’s 145-year history, there has been much discussion about the role played by and responsibility of jockey Luis Saez in what transpired.

As a result of Country House being awarded the victory at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, and Saez later being handed a 15-day suspension by the Kentucky Racing Commission, some of the debate has centered on jockey etiquette.

Though neither of the horses are entered in Saturday’s 144th Preakness Stakes — and Saez, who is appealing his suspension, won’t be at Pimlico Race Course either — questions loom going into the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Should a jockey who typically checks in at a little over 100 pounds be totally in control of a horse that usually weighs more than 12 times that? Should there be a set of rules guiding jockeys nationwide?

And what exactly leads jockeys to file complaints, as happened at the Derby when video replays showed Saez and Maximum Security veering several feet on more than one occasion to impede and potentially injure several other horses and jockeys left in their messy and muddy wake?

Veteran local horseman Mike Pons, the longtime owner of Country Life Farm in Fallston, said at Wednesday’s draw in Baltimore, “There’s a new day as far as jockey etiquette is concerned.”

With the tragic, still unsolved deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California, Pons said, “Safety is paramount.” Pons believes that the controversial decision in Kentucky was at least partly a byproduct of those equine deaths.

Pons seems confident that a set of rules for jockeys will be put in place if not on a state-by-state basis, then at tracks that have the same owners such as Pimlico and Gulfstream Park in South Florida, both owned by The Stronach Group.

For now, Pons said that “tradition” and a small set of racing rules such as not impeding the path of another horse or a jockey not hitting another horse with his whip will continue to govern the sport.

Stronach Group COO Tim Ritvo said Wednesday that “it’s always about the health and safety of the equine and human athlete.” Ritvo, who was a jockey early in his career, said that the mindset of those riding hasn’t changed over the years.

“They’re out there trying to win and compete against each other, but it’s a trade, it’s a very professional trade, pound for pound they're probably some of the fittest athletes in the world and I think riders look to protect their mount and win the race at the same time without getting anybody hurt,” Ritvo said.

Veteran trainer Mark Casse doesn’t think that the competitiveness, and thus the etiquette, of jockeys has changed dramatically over the years, but the onus should be placed on the stewards.

“I think we have a big issue that has to be fixed, and I’ve been saying this for a long time,” Casse said last week. “Do you think that the referee would go over to the wide receiver and say, ‘Do you think you were interfered with?’ And then run over to the safety and say, ‘Do you think you interfered with the wide receiver?’ I don’t even know they should talk to the riders. … It should not be up to the jockeys.”

Casse, who trains Preakness entrant War of Will, said that the fact that the stewards overseeing the Kentucky Derby did not light the “objection” sign immediately led to the long and seemingly arduous decision that seemed obvious to many, including War of Will’s jockey Tyler Gaffalione.

“When Tyler came back after the race, he said, ‘We’re lucky we didn’t go down,’” Casse recalled. “He said, ‘Saez came way out and hit us.’”

Casse said that the “close-knit” racing community in general and the relationships jockeys have with multiple trainers and owners make it difficult for those riding the horses to register complaints for fear of retribution that results in lost wages.

“One guy may be riding for me today, and the guy that is making the inquiry against me [and his jockey] might be riding for me tomorrow,” Casse said. “It puts the riders in a very tough place. That needs to be thrown out of the equation. Fifty years ago, when we didn’t have all the instant replays, that might have been fine. It’s different now. The stewards are professional, they need to make decisions.”

Still hesitant to talk about his Kentucky Derby ride, Gaffalione said in a telephone interview Wednesday that “things like that happen every day. Horses see things just like us. Things catch their attention even when they’re running.”

As for the possibility of Saez impeding other horses and jockeys, Gaffalione said, “It happens. You’re in the heat of the moment. Everything happens so quickly. You do as best as you can to maintain a straight path and keeping your composure.”

Said Sheldon Russell, a journeyman jockey from England who is based at Laurel, “I ride four days a week and it happens every day. Just unfortunate that it happened live on NBC. The jockey didn’t mean to do it, but sometimes we can’t control what the horses do.”

Most times, it’s about money. If the actions of another horse or jockey impact the outcome for those with a chance to finish in the top three, a protest is typically filed. Since War of Will finished seventh, neither Gaffalione or Casse filed a formal protest.

“You have to do what’s best for the owner and the horse, the trainer as well,” Gaffalione said. “If it’s going to benefit them, of course I’m going to do what’s right by them. If it’s not going to change the outcome … it just depends on the situation, really.”

Said Trevor McCarthy, the leading rider at Laurel Park, “Every rider knows that sometimes, it might be something very little, but it goes a long way with the trainers and the owners if they feel it cost them money or a placing. Sometimes, that’s huge, especially in stakes races, with the impact on breeding rights.”

Six-time Preakness-winning jockey and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas said Thursday that while this generation’s jockeys might not be as talented as legends like Angel Cordero and Willie Shoemaker, they are better equipped to handle the rules than those who preceded them.

“I think like all sports, with the great filming they can really dissect these races, like [Bill] Belichick is doing with the Patriots,” Lukas said. “I think they're all better. I don’t know if they’re more talented, but have more at their disposal to be better.”

Still, Lukas said there might be a disconnect with the rules that might not be intentional.

“I’d like to say that they’re that involved mentally, but I don’t think they are,” Lukas said. “I’m not so sure they can tell you what color the horse was that they rode in the Preakness.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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