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.

First Belmont Stakes a Ruthless One

The history of the Belmont Stakes goes back more than 150 years, making it the oldest of the Triple Crown races. And it all started with a filly.

Her name was Ruthless, and she was born in 1864, when the North and South were in the middle of a long, drawn-out civil war.  She was New-York bred, with her sire bearing the name of the great Eclipse; too bad his record didn’t show it, with only five wins in nine races.

Ruthless, along with her four full sisters, formed the “Barbarous Battalion” of fillies that resulted from the breeding of Eclipse to the mare Barbarity: Relentless, Remorseless, Regardless and Merciless. All had impressive racing careers.

Trained by William Brown, she showed some potential as a 2-year-old – two wins and two seconds in four starts. On Oct. 1, 1866, she won the Nursery Stakes by six lengths, defeating two colts on her way to victory. The New York Times described Ruthless as “galloping along as if she was at exercise.”

The next year, owner Francis Morris changed trainers, appointing A. Jack Minor to watch over Ruthless. He worked her hard, entering her in a six-furlong sprint on May 23 at Jerome Park, which she won. She came back the next day and won another race over older males in a 1 1/4 mile race. Imagine even older horses doing that today.

Ruthless finished second to her stablemate Monday in the Jersey Derby on June 4. Fifteen days later, she ran in the inaugural running of the Belmont Stakes, which was held at Jerome Park (Belmont Park did not host the Belmont Stakes until its opening in 1905). She would face three other colts, including Monday.

It had rained the day before, making the surface at Jerome Park very heavy. At the start, De Courcey jumped out in front, followed by Rivoli, Monday and Ruthless, who quickly found herself 12 lengths off the lead. De Courcey continued to set the pace, and by the half-mile pole held a two-length lead over Rivoli. Ruthless was beginning to creep up, now six lengths behind.

Jockey Gilbert Patrick let the reins loose on Ruthless, and she began to make up ground. By the quarter pole she had caught De Courcey. The two battled down the stretch, but De Courcey tired under the whip and Ruthless pulled away in the final strides to win by a half a length. The time for the 1 5/8 miles was a slow 3:05 (The distance was reduced to its current 1 1/2 miles in 1874). She is one of only three fillies to win the Belmont Stakes.

Ruthless went on to win the Travers Stakes over the boys again, and five days later won a two-mile race, defeating the only two colts who dared to race against her. She remains the only filly to win both races.

After an injury later that year, she was retired to broodmare duties and was bred to her old stablemate and rival Monday. The offspring, Battle Axe, won the Kentucky Stakes in 1873. Three years later, a hunter mistook Ruthless for a deer and shot her while she grazed in her paddock. She died five weeks later.  Her record: 11 starts, with 7 wins and 4 seconds.

Ruthless is still remembered today; the Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack is a six-furlong race for three-year-old fillies, run in January. She was inducted in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1975 – the same year a filly named Ruffian made a name for herself as one of the greatest fillies of all time.

Spectacular Bid Walkover in Woodward Stakes

Spectacular Bid: The Last Superhorse of the Twentieth Century

University Press of KentuckyIn Fall 2019, the University Press of Kentucky will publish a book by Peter Lee on the champion racehorse Spectacular Bid, the winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.  The book chronicles the life of one of the most underrated racehorses in history, as well as the horse’s colorful cast of characters.