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Mark Hansel: Stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security from KY Derby win was warranted

The stewards in the Kentucky Derby made the right decision in taking down Maximum Security, based on the rules governing a disqualification.

Maximum Security (pink silks) is shown crossing the finish line ahead of the field in the 145th Kentucky Derby. He was later disqualified and placed 17th for interfering with several other horses (photos by Mark Hansel).

Maximum Security crossed the finish line first but was disqualified for what was determined by stewards to be interference that impacted the finishing position of other horses in the race. 

Some are calling the ruling a black eye for the sport, but I would say it is a shining moment.

It demonstrates that those responsible for protecting the integrity off the sport, as well as the safety of its athletes, both human and equine, are prepared to do their job, even on the biggest stage.

Exactly what caused Maximum Security to veer out sharply as War of Will came of the rail and attempted to pass is uncertain. What seems pretty clear after watching the replay dozens of times, from several angles, is that Maximum Security interfered with several horses.

Tyler Gaffalione, the jockey on War of  Will, took up sharply and his mount’s head was right on the flank of Maximum Security. At this point, War of Will’s front leg was between the back legs of Maximum Security.

Gaffalione did not lodge a claim of foul, but two other jockeys, Flavien Prat aboard Country House and Jon Court on Long Range Toddy, did.

Court also had to take up and his horse quickly plummeted to the rear of the field.

Following those objections, though it was not announced on track, the stewards conducted a general inquiry into the running of the race.

At the conclusion of that review, Maximum Security was disqualified and placed 17th and Country House was declared the race winner.

I’m sure it was not an easy decision, with a spot in the winner’s circle on horse racing’s biggest stage on the line and millions of dollars in wagers hanging in the balance.

In the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby, a horse had never been disqualified after crossing the finish line first and the argument that Country House was never going to win the race is a fair one.

Racing Stewards (l to r; Brooks “Butch” Becraft, Barbara Borden, Tyler Picklesimer) addressed the media following the decision to disqualify Maximum Security as the winner of Kentucky Derby 145 Saturday.
Borden read from a prepared statement and declined to answer questions.

Maybe that’s why it took so long, 22 minutes by my count, for stewards to make the call.

Those who want to question the integrity, qualifications, or motives of the stewards, however, might be well-served to do a little homework.

I am not familiar with “Butch” Becraft but I do know a little bit about the credentials of the other two stewards involved.

Barbara Borden, Chief Steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, was instrumental in an initiative at Turfway Park to have stewards provide an explanation to the public following a disqualification. I have interacted with steward Tyler Picklesimer several times in his role as director of racing and racing secretary at Turfway Park, and consider him to be a man of high integrity as well. 

The suggestion that any of these people were motivated by anything other than an effort to make the correct decision and act in the best interests of the sport is ludicrous.

They should not be expected to respond to criticism because they declined to answer questions while appearing at a post-race press conference. Their explanation, read in a written statement, was thorough and accurate and many of the people I respect in horse racing journalism who were on hand, agreed with the decision.

I shook Picklesimer’s hand  as he stepped down from the podium and thanked him for providing an explanation. The stewards were not required to do so.

Full disclosure – I lost a significant amount of money (two Pick 4s totaling more than $1,000) when Maximum Security was taken down. As with most people who lose a wager in this way, I looked for a reason to be upset with this disqualification.

In my mind, there was none.

Consequences could have been disastrous

Country House was declared the winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby following the disqualification of Maximum Security.

I have been a fan of horse racing since Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 and have covered the sport for several years.

I have attended the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, Breeders’ Cup cards in California and Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby, both as a fan and a reporter.

I have seen the highs – Justify and American Pharaoh winning the Triple Crown – and the lows – 23 on-track horse deaths at Santa Anita in recent months.

What I feel very fortunate that I did not see, is what might have happened if Gaffalione had not displayed such remarkable horsemanship.

There were at least 15 horses behind War of Will when the incident that led to the disqualification took place.

If War of Will had gone down on the track, there is no doubt that he and at least some, and possibly many, of the horses and jockeys behind that one would have suffered serious injury.

Talk about a black eye for the sport.

A comparison might be a pileup at the front of the field in a NASCAR race, when many cars are collected in the ensuing wreckage.

The difference would be that horses are fragile, living animals, not hunks of metal and jockeys are not surrounded by a steel cage. They have no real protection at all.

Some high-profile horsemen have said the rules governing disqualification should be different for the Kentucky Derby because there is so much at stake and the field is so large. I agree to some extent.

When Gaffalione began his run with War of Will, he forced his way through a tight space and was in close quarters to Country House. That is the type of race-riding that could be overlooked when the stakes are so high, because his decision didn’t appear to impact any other horses.

In my mind it didn’t rise to the level of warranting a foul claim in the Kentucky Derby, or any other race, but some disagree and I respect that opinion.

No jockey or trainer lodged a claim of foul against Gaffalione and the stewards did not see fit to take any action against him.

Preakness defections unfortunate, but not a consideration

Maximum Security is led around the race track as his connections wait to find out the results of an objection the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. He was ultimately disqualified from the win and placed 17th. His connections have chosen not to run him in the Preakness Stakes and owner Gary West has indicated he may pursue litigation, following denial of an appeal into the disqualification decision.

The connections of Maximum Security have chosen not to go to the Preakness and Country House will not run there due to an illness.

This is unfortunate and will almost certainly diminish the profile of that race this year, at a time when Pimlico could really use a boost. There is no way the stewards could have anticipated these defections and it should not have been a factor in the decision to disqualify Maximum Security, in any event.

The Triple Crown is a rare feat and we have been fortunate to witness two in recent years. Many with knowledge of the sport did not believe any of the horses in this Derby field had the stamina or ability to win three races in five weeks, all at different distances.

Those defections could provide an opportunity for a new star to emerge as the race winner. The more top-tier 3-year-olds there are in the competition heading into the summer and ultimately, the Breeders’ Cup, the better for the sport.

I can’t possibly understand the frustration of Gary West, the owner of Maximum Security, but I hope he will consider not pursuing litigation that has little chance of succeeding and accept the decision of the stewards.

I also hope and believe that those who have indicated they will boycott the Kentucky Derby next year as a result of this incident will reconsider.

As one who has seen the Kentucky Derby from many angles, I can say that without a doubt, it really is “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

Mark Hansel is the managing editor of the Northern Kentucky Tribune and KyForward. He can be reached at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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One Comment

  1. Jim Dressman says:

    I agree with you 100%

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