In a slow-to-evolve, tradition-laden sport, the Kentucky Derby might have set the standard for race officiating with the disqualification of first-place finisher Maximum Security.
The pressure was tremendous on the stewards at Churchill Downs to apply the same rules in the sport’s showcase event that they would any other day of the week. Horses get their number taken down all the time in lesser races for various infractions.
The DQ on Saturday cost bettors backing Maximum Security $9 million in losses. The colt’s owners, Gary, and Mary West, would have received $1.8 million for first place. Jockey Luis Saez’s share of the purse would have been $180,000. Little-known trainer Jason Servis was dealt a devastating blow, too.
So perhaps it’s the sign of a new era in racing when officiating will take some of the tactics out of the game, similar to what’s happened in other pro sports.
Hockey has all but eliminated bench-clearing brawls, with fighting limited to each teams’ designated goon going one-on-one. The NFL tightened up the rules on pass interference to the point where contact causes referees to toss a penalty flag.
Why should racing be any different? Across sports, officiating has become more intrusive with advances in technology, and the games change as a result.
Horses get knocked around and lose position in the 20-horse stampede that defines the Derby. As five-time winner Bob Baffert said last week, “It’s all about the trip.”
Stewards could issue DQs in any given year for the chaotic 1¼-mile Derby. It’s a rough race by virtue of so many inexperienced horses charging 40 mph over a distance they’ve never attempted, in front of the biggest, noisiest crowd they’ll ever see, and ridden by jockeys with a burning desire to win even if it means taking higher risks.
No one illustrated that daring-do better than three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel. He earned the nickname “Bo-rail” for his rail-skimming rides in contrast to most jockeys who prefer keeping their horses outside and potentially clear of trouble.
Maximum Security became the first Derby horse disqualified in 145 years for an infraction on the track. The stewards ruled the front-running colt interfered with War of Will traveling close behind as they approached the top of the stretch, beginning a chain of near-disastrous events.