Pushing the Message - By Evan Hammonds

It had always been hard to believe that in the first 144 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (G1) there hadn’t been an incident on the track that was egregious enough to disqualify the winner. Derby first-place finisher Dancer’s Image’s testing positive for a prohibited substance—phenylbutazone (Bute)—and subsequent disqualification comes to mind, but that verdict by the stewards came days after the Run for the Roses in the spring of 1968.

Well, it happened May 4 at Churchill Downs where the three stewards on track—chief steward Barbara Borden, Brooks Becraft, and Tyler Picklesimer—came to a unanimous decision to disqualify first-place finisher Maximum Security and place him behind War of Will and Long Range Toddy.

Hardboots and handicappers will long argue whether it was the right call. Despite our original thoughts moments after they hit the wire, we agree the Derby “winner” should have come down.

While the racing world paced the floor, it was fascinating to see the stewards at work, and we must admit, it was interesting to see they have the best technology at their disposal with multiple camera angles.

However, the horsemen, fans, and viewers were left watching a live, 22-minute cliffhanger.

While the general media prefer to wrap every story with a bow, that rarely works with horse racing. The nuances of each state’s regulations are hard to explain. For those of us that were at the track, and the millions of viewers around the globe on NBC, we were left wanting more after the results were finally made official.

The stewards did, finally, make a statement—without taking questions—as to the decision-making process, but not until well after the day’s last race, which went off at 8:39 p.m., long after NBC had moved on to NHL playoff hockey.

The statement, delivered by Borden, was succinct:

“The riders of the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and 20 (Country House) horses in the Kentucky Derby lodged objections against the seven horse, the winner, alleging interference turning for home leaving the quarter pole. We had a lengthy review of the race, interviewed affected riders, and determined that the seven horse drifted out and impacted the number 1 (War of Will), who in turn interfered with the 18 and 21 (Bodexpress). Those horses were all affected. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind 18. That is our typical procedure.”

The statement was adequate, but was too late in coming.

It was a missed opportunity by the state’s commission to explain its decision and what went into the process and also to explain why the stewards “inquiry” sign was never posted.

It was a chance to explain the rules nationally and emphasize how the regulations are designed for safety of horse and rider. It would have gone a long way to soothe a wanting public as well as to those for whom the outcome was a life-changing event.

Having one of the stewards or someone from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission go over the ruling, nationally, would have given everyone a better understanding. A person who has been put in position to make decisions of this magnitude needs to have a strong enough constitution to explain the decision.

C’mon, this is the Kentucky Derby, people.

The day before the Derby, trainer Tom Amoss went to great lengths to explain his reasoning for turning to social media to show the progress of his Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) prospect—and winner—Serengeti Empress as she prepared for the race, considering that she had bled in her previous start in New Orleans.

“Look, it’s no secret that our industry is facing at least what I consider a moment, a big moment, that can go one of two ways,” Amoss  said. “And as far as I’m concerned with my horses and the racing public, as well as the general public, I want to give as much information as I can out there. I want everyone to know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.  So I thought it was very important to document everything that we did.

“And I think that’s the new world of racing. I think that we’re going to see more and more of that. There’s nothing wrong with being transparent. I’m all for it.”

For a sport in desperate need of a positive message, we need to take advantage of every “moment.”

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