About That Derby…

Maximum Security touching legs with War of Will

As Maximum Security went across the finish line, my hands went up in the air as I whooped for joy. I had picked the winner of the Kentucky Derby for the fifth time in seven years.

I received congratulations from people at my Derby party as I waited for the stewards to make it official.

And I waited. And waited.

I watched replays showing Maximum Security cutting in front of War of Will, impeding his progress, and my heart fell. I had a feeling this wouldn’t end well. But surely they wouldn’t reverse the results of a Kentucky Derby. That had happened only once before, in 1968, and that was because of a failed drug test, not a rules infraction on the course.

My mind started to rationalize the infraction. How many bumps happen on the first furlong, when horses are all bunched together trying to get in good position? How many collisions are there on the backstretch, when jockeys are trying to move their mounts in between horses? God, why are there 20 horses in the Derby?

When Country House was declared the winner, I was outraged. How could they take down the best horse (by far) in the race in favor of a second-rate horse who had one win in six starts and barely made it into the Derby?

I searched Twitter and Facebook for arguments for Maximum Security to remain the Derby champion. It was split right down the middle. That didn’t help, and like social media is prone to do, it only made me angrier.

Then I saw the slow-motion replays of Maximum Security almost clipping heels with War of Will, and War of Will averting a disaster by moving to the right, avoiding Maximum Security, and bumping several other horses in the process, including Country House. I saw close-ups of the legs of the two horses practically touching.

I knew then that I was beaten. I had no rationale for Maximum Security to remain the winner.

It doesn’t matter who made the objection. It doesn’t matter that previous Derbies may have had similar or worse infractions. In this case, no matter how painful it is, the stewards were right.

It’s sad, really. Maximum Security was on his way to immortality – he had led from start to finish – and then 100,000 drunk spectators in the infield roared, and the green colt shied away from them, moving several lanes over and right into War of Will’s path. Jockey Luis Saez tried to correct the move, but it was too late. He overcompensated and bumped into Code of Honor on the rail. Maximum Security was in for the fight of his life after roaming all over the course, but he came out on top, only to be denied the win.

Hats off to Country House, who did what he needed to do to take second and, by default, win the Kentucky Derby. No matter how bad it looks, he’s now the Derby winner.

The Derby winner with an asterisk.

40 Years Ago: Spectacular Bid wins Kentucky Derby

Photo by Jerry Cooke

There was no disqualification, no controversy in the 1979 Kentucky Derby.

Spectacular Bid went for the lead around the far turn, looked his rival Flying Paster in the eye, and went on to a 2 3/4 length victory in the 105th Kentucky Derby.

It was a cold, windy day at Churchill Downs as the horses went into the starting gate. Bid got out as he usually did—slow and clumsy.

Jockey Ron Franklin let most of the horses go by him, then saw the horses form a wall in front of him as they raced by the finish line for the first time and headed for the clubhouse turn. But Franklin moved Bid to the outside from his number three position, despite losing valuable ground, and settled into seventh place.

By the half-mile mark, General Assembly and Shamgo were the leaders, setting a slow pace. They were five lengths in front of the West’s best bet, Flying Paster, who seemed to have some difficulty managing the sandy surface. Spectacular Bid seemed to be holding his own.

About halfway down the backstretch, Franklin whispered, “It’s time, Big Daddy!” into Bid’s ear, and Bid slowly gained ground, still on the outside and still at his own rate of speed. He finally settled alongside Flying Paster, who was busy making his own move on a tiring Shamgo.

The two raced as one hitting the far turn, chasing General Assembly, who held on to the lead and seemed to have conserved his energy based on the slow initial fractions. The Paster was on the inside, Bid on the outside.

The crowd roared as they saw the rivalry develop between Bid and Flying Paster. These two colts were the ones who were supposed to battle it out for the Kentucky Derby, East vs. West, neck and neck, gunning for the lead. It was a setup for a perfect ending.

And in a second, it was over. Bid moved past The Paster and in front of General Assembly, as Franklin hit the colt entering the homestretch. “My horse looked Paster in the eye, and the other horse spit the bit right out,” Franklin said, meaning Flying Paster gave up; Don Pierce, Flying Paster’s jockey, felt the reins slacken in his hands and knew that it was over.

As the pack entered the homestretch, Franklin whipped Bid five times to urge him on, and with each stride Bid lengthened his lead over General Assembly. Flying Paster dropped back, and Golden Act took his place with a furious closing kick, coming from next-to-last place.

But Bid was not to be denied; when he crossed the finish line, the margin of victory was two and three-quarter lengths. General Assembly was second, and Golden Act was third, three lengths behind General Assembly. Flying Paster finished fifth, ten lengths behind. The final time was 2:02 2/5—not a fast Derby, but considering the track conditions, it was fast enough.

Spectacular Bid, the horse bought for $37,000 by three Marylanders and trained by a small-time horse claimer, had just won the most prestigious horse race in North America.