Billy Reed: Derby 145 decision sparks new era in sport

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - In the confusion after the 145th Kentucky Derby, my first reaction was that the stewards would never take down the victorious Maximum Security, no matter what he may have done in the turn for home.

The reason is that shortly after I began covering the Derby 53 years ago, I was made aware of the double standard that exists regarding the world’s most famous race.

In other words, jockeys could get away with just about anything in the Derby without fear of punishment. The reason was that nobody in the sport wanted to see their marquee race marred by a disqualification.

Every Derby, you could watch the replay and see where this horse was bumped or that one had to pull up when somebody cut in front of him. But the stewards ignored it and the horsemen limited their complaints to just a little post-race grumbling.

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But all that changed on Saturday at Churchill Downs. For the first time in 145 years, the stewards decided to view the Derby the same as they would any other race. Trust me, Jason Servis was not the only trainer shocked by the new deal in the Derby.

In retrospect, I think the outcome of the Derby was dictated by the 23 horses who died this year in racetrack accidents at Santa Anita in California. It was a tragedy unlike the sport had ever seen, and suddenly critics and investigators were everywhere. They came from the media, from politicians, and from animal rights’ groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column saying that the 145th Derby would be run under a dark cloud created by the unprecedented rash of deaths in California. Nobody had an answer. Was something wrong with the racetrack? With permissive medication rules? Everything was on the table.

Under these circumstances, it was essential that the 145th Derby be free of injuries or accidents. Had a horse, or more, gone down, the pressure on the industry would have been suffocating, especially since the Derby is the only race in the nation that allows 20 entrants instead of the 14 that has become the sport’s accepted norm.

When the three stewards were pondering what to do in the 20 minutes after the Derby, they had to be aware, at least subconsciously, of what impact their decision would have not only on the Derby, but the entire sport.

They could have let Maximum Security stand as the winner, and nobody would have been surprised. But considering how he veered into Will to Win, almost locking legs in what would have created a horrible chain reaction, was that really the best message to send to the public? That anything still goes in the Kentucky Derby, as has been the case for years?

So to the shock of many, including trainer Bob Baffert, the stewards decided to make their decision based on a strict interpretation of the rules or racing, instead of turning their heads because this was the race where anything goes.

I can understand horsemen and bettors who felt betrayed by the decision. It was not in keeping with Derby tradition. But count me among those who give the stewards credit for doing the right thing at the right time.

Now the public knows that, at least in Kentucky, safety is being taken seriously. There is no more double standard for the Derby. Reckless riding is reckless riding, no matter when or where it occurs.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, whose Country House was moved from second to first, thought the stewards did the right thing. But before you say, “Of course, he did,” you should know that Mott is known for his honesty and integrity. Had he felt that Maximum Security shouldn’t have been taken down, he would have said so, even if it was to the detriment of his horse.

Trainers Kenny McPeek and Shug McGaughey were among those who supported the stewards. But other horsemen, and the majority of the media, were adamant that the stewards should have stuck to Derby tradition and let the result stand.

That would have given PETA and the other critics ammunition. When testifying in court or before Congress, all they would have to do is show a slow-motion replay of the Derby’s turn for home and ask, “Does this look like a sport that really cares about safety?”

I feel badly for Servis, jockey Luis Saez, and owners Gary and Mary West. Their horse was easily the best. But I suspected he got “spooked” by something — the roar of the crowd in the turn for home, cameras flashing, something on the track — and caused Saez to lose control, at least for a few critical moments.

The Wests filed an appeal with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which, by statute, is not allowed to hear appeals about incidents that happen during a race. Their lawyers used words like “capricious” and “arbitrary,” which are catch-all legal terms they will use until they find something more substantial.

The commission quickly said it didn’t have the authority to hear such an appeal.

The next step would seem to be court, either state or federal, but what are they going to build their case on? The stewards have good reputations and tons of experience. They did not exceed their authority. So what will the charges be?

To their credit, the stewards could have taken the easy way out and saved themselves a lot of trouble. But they didn’t. They did the right thing even though they had to know that their integrity would be questioned and their reputations sullied.

Although I’m probably in the minority, I prefer to look at the 145th Derby as the beginning of a new era in which the sport pays more than lip service to caring about the safety of both jockeys and horses.

No race should be above the law.