Derby Deprived of One of its Greatest Stories

Several days have passed to allow the Kentucky Derby fiasco to sink in. We have had additional angles of the incident and a variety of opinions, some saying it was the right call and others saying it was a travesty. I guess that’s as far as it will go.

First let me say that I have been on Country House’s bandwagon since the first Derby Dozen after he broke his maiden, and to assure that my thoughts are unbiased in any way, I stated in my next to last Derby Dozen on April 23:

“Speaking of Bill Mott, in the “Don’t leave out of your Exotics” category, before you get too turned off by the fact that COUNTRY HOUSE finished 5 3/4 lengths behind runner-up Improbable in the Arkansas Derby, remember two important aspects of that race. Country House had run three weeks earlier and was being wheeled back in the Arkansas Derby, not with winning as the major goal, but just picking up enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field. Mott was not going to have the colt bust a gut trying to beat Omaha Beach and Improbable at a mile and an eighth, and over a sloppy track. He just needed to get him in the Derby so he could use his main weapons – stamina, ruggedness, and a big kick on the far turn -- going a mile and a quarter, which is right in his wheelhouse. Joel Rosario kept him out of trouble on the far outside all the way down the backstretch and around the turn. He launched his bid, circling the field and picking off horses, but Omaha Beach and Improbable were already long gone. He continued wide into the stretch and outran a very strong closer in Laughing Fox, who saved all the ground, to get third and stamp his ticket to the Derby. With it all, he still ran the same Thoro-Graph number as Roadster did winning the Santa Anita Derby and Vekoma in winning the Blue Grass, and a far better number than By My Standards winning the Louisiana Derby. Now it’s on to Churchill Downs where they’ll be playing his game at his distance and he gets a smart, patient rider in Flavien Prat.”

Finally, in my selections column, Country House received high praise in six of my categories – Thoro-Graph and Ragozin numbers, Slop, breeding. Gut instinct, the entire category of Toughness because of No Class and especially her sire Nodouble, one of the toughest horses I ever saw, and Wagering (Win and exacta plays). So needless to say I did well at the windows and would have won whether they left the result or not. But this goes far deeper than betting success.

I fully understand that some people are going to be outraged by the stewards’ decision and others will agree with it. People look at things and interpret them differently. But it was the entire scenario and series of events that made this in the eyes of many one of the Kentucky Derby’s darkest hours. I am not here to judge the stewards or to state how badly War of Will and Long Range Toddy were hampered or even if War of Will created his own problems by trying to go through an opening that wasn’t there, which some angles might suggest. But all were at difficult angles. It certainly was not something you look at and say “instant disqualification.” War of Will did recover quickly and was back in stride immediately, but faded in the final furlong to finish eighth.

Whether you agreed with this controversial and brazen call or not, the fact is, the best horse, who ran his heart out, became the first horse ever to be disqualified from first in the Derby; the jockey who was bothered the most did not even claim foul; most egregious was there was no stewards’ inquiry; and the jockey who was not bothered at all and was beaten fair and square, did claim foul, just taking a finger pointing, Hail Mary wild shot, something I have never seen before. Good for him. It worked. But his horse had every chance and had no excuse. He had Maximum Security dead to rights, but could not finish him off. I still like this horse a great deal and look at him as an even bigger threat in the Belmont Stakes, but as an objective observer I have to say that this was a good, solid, runner-up performance, but not a winning performance. There was one definitely better.

If this was a clear-cut infraction worthy of a disqualification, did the stewards need to look at it for what seemed an interminable amount of time? Sure you want to get it right, but after watching it 15 or 20 times shouldn’t you know by then if it was egregious enough to take the winner down? Did they see anything the next 15 or 20 times they didn’t see before? That would suggest this was a borderline decision. It certainly was not something they saw in the live running. They initially needed a jockey who was not even involved to alert them that something might have happened.

What exacerbated the situation and made it even more disturbing to Gary West was that “the stewards wrote a statement that was probably prepared by their lawyers and refused, literally refused, to take a single question from the media, so they’ve been about as non-transparent about this whole thing as anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Anyone who follows racing has to ask themselves, do you honestly believe in the same scenario the stewards would have disqualified Bill Mott and put up Jason Servis, who has been surrounded by questions himself? It is merely a question. Would they have disqualified Bob Baffert or Shug McGaughey? Would they have taken down the winner if racing didn't suffer a black eye earlier in the year from the deaths at Santa Anita? What if this incident had happened on the first turn instead of the second turn or at the start? Was this worse than 2010 Derby winner Super Saver and third-place finisher Paddy O’Prado both wiping out Country House’s sire Lookin At Lucky, who was almost put over the rail? Was it worse than Bayern’s actions at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic in which he most definitely cost Shared Belief a shot to win? But that was the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Bob Baffert and it occurred at the start. Some races simply are bigger events and cannot be treated as any other race. This is all about lifelong dreams and an event that is a piece of Americana. Stewards have proven that in the past.

I am happy for Bill Mott and his crew. No one deserved a Derby victory more. But one as tainted as this most certainly has to temper the joy and celebration. Does he really feel like he won the Kentucky Derby in much the same way as the previous winners? I hope for his sake he does. He did a great job with Country House and also with Tacitus and he should be proud of his accomplishment. He can now say he won the Kentucky Derby and hope it goes no further than that.

As someone who has been watching the Derby for 50 years and covering it on a national scale for 30 years, this could have been one of the great storylines in Derby history. I understand the stewards do not care about such things, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But what they should do is acknowledge that this was the Kentucky Derby, with its huge field and often becoming a bumper car race where far more egregious events have occurred with no action taken. With this decision they have turned the Derby, at least this year’s, into a race like any other that will have a profound effect on future Derbys, with a likely influx of foul claims for any kind of infraction, whether minor or major.

Speaking now as a writer searching for storylines, if anyone deserved to win the Derby as much as Mott it was Gary and Mary West, who have been all class and staunch supporters of racing for 40 years. They have been on the Derby trail since the 1990s when their Rockamundo upset the Arkansas Derby, paying $218, and then suffering an entrapped epiglottis in the Kentucky Derby. They won the Wood Memorial with Buddha, but saw him suffer an injury on Derby Week. They won the Louisiana Derby with High Limit; the Risen Star Stakes with Dollar Bill, who also placed in the Blue Grass Stakes; and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes with Flashback, who placed in the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes.

Now here they were, not only with last year’s 2-year-old champion Game Winner, but the undefeated rags to riches colt Maximum Security, a homebred who racing manager Ben Glass couldn’t give away for $15,000 as a yearling and had to resort to running first time out in a $16,000 claiming race, for which there were no takers. The colt then rose dramatically through the ranks, winning the Florida Derby, as well as his first four career starts by an average margin of 9 1/2 lengths.

Why was this a horse no one wanted? First off, his sire, New Year’s Day, wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, so West told Ben Glass to sell him and find a farm who would buy half-interest. Although the asking price was cheap, no one wanted to stand him. Finally, a syndicate from South America bought him for dirt cheap and sent him to Brazil. The dam, Lil Indy, had sold for a meager $2,200 as a yearling before being purchased by Glass for $80,000 in foal to Pioneerof the Nile. The resulting foal finished out of the money in all five of her starts. Lil Indy’s third foal, a full brother to Maximum Security, ran for $7,500 to $10,000 claiming races and finished out of the money in six of his final seven races.

Maximum Security was a late foal, born May 15, and his knees didn’t close (the bones didn’t fuse together). “I couldn’t sell him for $15,000 as a yearling,” Glass reiterated. “He was beautiful. I took some people out to the farm to show them several yearlings we had for sale and nobody liked him. I couldn’t get anyone to stand his sire and finally sold him to a syndicate in Brazil. His full brother was running in cheap claiming races and his half-sister wasn’t doing any good. So we kept him and broke him.”

West, with over 100 horses, needed to get rid of those who didn’t measure up, and this colt, physically and family-wise, certainly didn’t measure up. They decided to wait until July for his knees to close so they could eventually run him for a claiming tag. They sent him to Jason Servis along with several other maidens they needed to cull and told him to move them along. But Maximum Security immediately came down with sore shins, so they had to wait for him to get healthy.

The colt hadn’t shown anything on the farm or at the track in the morning, so when Servis told Glass he wasn’t working that well, Glass said to just put him in for $16,000. But once he got over his shin problems and was ready to run, Servis noticed something about him and told Glass, “You know, this horse may be better than we think. Maybe we should run him for $40,000.” But having just practically given his sire away because no one wanted him, having just sold his dam for a meager $11,000 after having paid $80,000 for her and seeing her go off to Korea, having seen his sister, Lily of the Nile, sell at the sale as a 4-year-old for a paltry $3,000, and with his siblings having done nothing on the track, they decided to stick with the original plan to run for a $16,000 claiming tag, figuring people would see he’s a homebred with a dismal family history and assume they were just trying to get rid of a crooked horse.

Even though Maximum Security surprised everyone by romping by 9 3/4 lengths, with no one claiming him, the following month Lily of the Nile sold again, this time for only $5,000. Three months later that one-time reject was a winner of the grade 1 Florida Derby and one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, and somewhere out there, someone has his dam for $11,000 and his half-sister by Pioneerof the Nile for $5,000.

As Glass said, “I honestly don’t have the answers. All of a sudden this colt woke up. You just never know in this game. When you have over 100 horses you have to move some of them along. Dr. David Lambert once told me a horse’s heart develops by racing and putting stress on it because it isn’t fully developed before they run. Sometimes you can’t tell about a horse until they test out their heart. We don’t even know yet if he’s just a horse for course or if he’s this good.”

Well, they found out that he was that good on the first Saturday in May. But the joy was all too brief.

Glass, shaken up by the ordeal, said afterward, “A culmination of 40 years of hard work wiped out in 23 minutes. It hurts real bad.”

With his longtime Derby dreams shattered and with such a bad taste in his mouth, Gary West, who is appealing the decision, is now, after four decades in the sport and having invested hundreds of millions of dollars, contemplating getting out and focusing his energy and resources on the Gary and Mary West Health Institute and their other non-profit endeavors, according to Glass.

That would be an even sadder epilogue to this year’s Kentucky Derby story. Let’s hope for the sake of the sport it is only a knee-jerk reaction. Right now it is still in the thought process. But it just shows how deeply they were hurt.

Like everything in racing, this shall pass, but it’s going to take much longer than normal. For the Wests and Ben Glass it may take forever.

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