By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
Until Saturday, “Country House” was just something featured every week on HGTV.
But thanks to Kentucky Derby No. 145, it’s now the latest two-word entry in the urban dictionary for controversy.
Country House, an improving-by-the-day thoroughbred trained by Bill Mott, was declared the winner of the Kentucky Derby after the unofficial first-place finisher, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference coming off the final turn.
Reaction to the ruling of the three Churchill Downs stewards has spanned the spectrum. From unthinkable to logical; from unfair to warranted; from egregious to a no-brainer.
Rubbin’ is racin’, some have said. Just like that slashing penalty in the third period of a tied Stanley Cup playoff game should be considered a hockey play. Just like that blatant hog-tying of a blitzing linebacker should be ignored in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
You know what isn’t racing, though: Three jockeys in the back of an ambulance or the euthanizing of thoroughbreds on the hallowed dirt of Churchill Downs.
Those are two scenarios that easily could have played out on Saturday evening in Louisville. Only the ballet-like athleticism displayed by War of Will and Long Range Toddy, along with the talents of their jockeys, allowed the horses to stay upright and not trigger a NASCAR-like pileup.
“It could have been catastrophic,” said thoroughbred trainer Jeremiah Englehart, the 1994 Red Jacket High School graduate who has a prominent New York-based racing stable.
Because of what could have happened on that far turn, and because the rules of a sport must be applied uniformly and without regard for what’s at stake, I have no qualms with the decision made by the stewards.
Why would the magnitude of an event require a separate rule book? In the $1 million Hambletonian in 2017, harness racing’s equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, What the Hill was disqualified from first and placed last for a similar infraction.
Some have argued that the absence of peril should have been a consideration of the Kentucky stewards. The old, “no harm, no foul” mentality. Again, a different rule book.
Maximum Security’s actions were unintentional. It’s not like jockey Luis Saez employed any race-riding intimidation strategy. His horse drifted, be it because of the slop or, as Saez said on NBC’s telecast, because the loudening crowd noise spooked the horse as the field came off the turn. But intent is not a requirement for a disqualification.
I do, however, have one question for the stewards. What were they were doing as the race ended? Why didn’t they immediately light the INQUIRY sign? The first notice of an issue came only through a jockey’s objection?
Anyone paying any attention to the race knew an inquiry was warranted. Everyone saw jockey Tyler Gaffalione grab up War of Will and help the horse somehow stay upright as Maximum Security drifted from the two path to the four path, and directly into War of Will.
Considering two — and perhaps three — front strides by War of Will were made between the hind legs of Maximum Security, t’s a miracle they didn’t both trip and fall.
That incident also forced Jon Court aboard Long Range Toddy to steady and grab. They, too, managed not to fall.
And yet after all that, it took a shot-in-the-dark objection by Flavien Prat for the stewards to say they would examine the video.
“When you looked at it again, you understand how close the horses were to coming down, how bad it really could have been,” Englehart said on Sunday afternoon.
Englehart can relate very well to the emotions experienced by Mott in the moments immediately follow the race. In 2013 during the running of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the Englehart-trained Ria Antonia was bumped during the run through the deep stretch by She’s a Tiger. She’s a Tiger held off Ria Antonia to win the race.
But an objection was lodged by jockey Javier Castellano and, after a lengthy review by the stewards, 32-1 long shot Ria Antonia was declared the winner.
“It brought back memories,” Englehart said of Saturday’s post-Derby chaos. “When I was in it (in 2013), it felt like an eternity waiting for the decision.”
His situation was a little different. His horse was the one fouled. The stewards ruled the incident cost his horse victory.
In the Kentucky Derby, Country House really didn’t get bothered, at least not seemingly to the degree Prat claimed in post-race interviews.
War of Will, however, was hindered greatly. Would he have won? Probably not. Might he have held on for third (that’s $300,000, by the way)? Or fourth ($150,000)? Or fifth ($90,000)? Maybe? Probably?
“I tried to put myself in the stewards’ position,” Englehart said. “Once a horse gets impeded like that, it stops his momentum. I thought War of Will lost all chance of competing.”
And that’s precisely why the DQ was correct.