The Past is Prologue: Convergences Create a Different Kentucky Derby

The 2019 Kentucky Derby’s extremely controversial ending was the result of numerous factors that contributed to the outcome.

Updated: May 8, 2019 • 11:05 AM ET

The Kentucky Derby may have seen its most controversial ending to date.

One hundred forty-five was definitely different.

Last week, I mentioned that horse racing was at a historical crossroads, especially concerning its noble instincts. It faced the prospect of plummeting over a cultural precipice, or moving in a positive direction that would reestablish its once lost hegemony.

After years of death and irresponsibility at the racetrack, the public will not tolerate it any further, it told the industry. In the end, I asked: Could Derby Day 145 be a means by which to score a win for the beleaguered sport? Well, a potential downpour, in more ways than one, greatly affected the race and left many shaking their fists in the air, whether in anger or triumph.

After Saturday’s climactic decision to disqualify the Jason Servis-trained horse Maximum Security and replace him with Bill Mott’s 65-1 long shot Country House, media outlets asked ad nauseam: Did the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) make the correct choice?

Too obvious, too popular, too mainstream.

A more intriguing question to proffer would be: What motivated the KHRC to jettison how the Kentucky Derby has previously been officiated? In other words, what were the factors at work here?

Is it possible that the climate surrounding racing culture moved so much this year that a group of experienced stewards threw out past precedent and chose to act in the best interest of the sport?

It’s a complicated answer.

Explaining historical events isn’t easy; that’s why time offers perspective and helps us to take a fresh look at a set of outcomes. Shakespeare said it best, “What’s past is prologue.”

We don’t have the benefit of a wide-lens, yet. But what we can do is take as prosaic a view of the situation as possible and emphasize the multi-causal. As I see it, what happened at this year’s Derby wasn’t, to quote “The Matrix”, the sound of inevitability. Instead, we might look at it another way.

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Kentucky Derby 145’s result was the combination of independent convergences that met in a unique moment — a nexus. That’s what happened last Saturday at Churchill Downs, a place where the thrill of…oh…on with the argument.

The steward’s decision to take Maximum Security off the board and place him second to last was not pre-ordained. Thus, the outcome was contingent on several key moments to disqualify a winning horse.

First, the track conditions were sloppy (ironic since most of the day was relatively dry), which made the turns more challenging than usual. Even for Servis’ charge, guided by seasoned jockey Luis Saez, being loose on the lead had its disadvantages. Sometimes when you’re alongside another horse, it can help with steadying; not the case here.

Those conditions were the grounds by which adrenaline and speed met at the top of the stretch. Horses by their nature don’t make left-hand turns well, and whether it was a puddle or crowd noise, trying to control them on turns isn’t like running on a rail. It’s hard. So, drifting into the different paths as momentum builds can occur.

Other horses, which are moving for position, run into each other, especially in the Derby with a field of 19 to 20. So, to lodge an objection and claim a foul, a jockey(s) would need a certain perspective and motive.

Country House jockey Flavien Prat (riding in his third Derby) lodged the most prominent complaint. Since he finished second, it was in his best interest to take a shot since his horse was clearly beaten when drawing alongside Maximum Security. The other jockey who objected, Jon Court, might not ever get to ride in the Derby again, as he was the oldest rider in the field. He clearly didn’t think that honoring the precedent of “letting riders, ride,” should stand.

The tipping point in this convergence were two individuals who knew that forcing the stewards to look at the situation might help both their causes. Clearly Tyler Gaffalione, the jockey of the 1 horse, War of Will, who is trained by Mark Casse, didn’t feel that a claim of foul would make a difference in the outcome. He finished 8th and never spoke to the stewards.

Prat almost immediately spoke to them. Originally from France and the son of a trainer, he clearly understood what he was doing and skillfully crafted a “story” based on what he thought he saw. He even had his Hall of Fame trainer, Mott, corroborating his point of view. These were the sparks that lit the powder keg.

The Derby is unlike any other race. It’s not an everyday occurrence, and it has never been officiated like other races. If you’ve read the post-Kentucky Derby jockey quotes from past years, several riders have claimed that they were fouled. “It’s the Derby,” has been the typical response.

(See Gary Stevens’ quotes after the 2014 Derby via the Courier-Journal)

I always thought it was ironic that since NBC Sports has covered the race, they’ve traditionally shown the chief steward, in this case Barbara Borden, giving an impassioned speech to the jocks in the changing room before they file out. It reminds me of a principal before recess telling the kids to mind their manners on the playground. You can tell that some of them are saying under their breath, “yeah right, we’ll be good.”

It doesn’t happen; they all want to win since they’re bred for it. A Derby victory for a jockey is like winning an Oscar; it puts you into the stratosphere and opens up all kinds of opportunities.

With the stakes so inordinately high, the objections triggered something else that was converged at that moment. Recently, the sport of horse racing has been on the cultural ropes and under the microscope. The KHRC and Churchill Downs Inc. is painfully aware of this fact, so the opportunity to rule on such an important race presented itself.

Now, this isn’t purely conjecture, but there had to be some kind of understanding among the stewards that if they chose to “take down” a winner, their decision would reverberate through the industry and the world. Racing rules in Kentucky are very specific and local, since there’s no set of national standards regarding officiating. Kentucky can do as they see fit.

Thus, a foul isn’t necessarily a foul. Did you know Prat was fouled on the backstretch by, of all people, Court, as he navigated Country House into position? Should that have been reported, or because it occurred earlier in the race it wasn’t considered significant?

All this talk of local rules would be akin to Cincinnati’s Major League Baseball team playing an inter-league game at Yankee Stadium. What would happen if their cleanup hitter belted a grand slam and it was called back because a Reds fan ran on the field to congratulate him. The Reds manager protests! He tells the umpires, “they always get to do this at Great American Ballpark!”

Coda: Rules are rules, but it all depends on the jurisdiction, who’s enforcing them and how they’re feeling at any given time.

Certainly, Borden, an accomplished horseperson and long-time advocate of the care of equine athletes, and her team understood that they had the opportunity to implement fairness and put an end to the style of the Derby that had developed over the years. This became a watershed moment to open the door for change.

Maybe the converging factors backed them into a corner? They certainly came out fighting.

If you watch the clip from the steward’s room, you can see Borden pointing and debating the angles. They clearly took the Derby objection seriously, and I’m sure the gravity of the situation was monumental. Think of it, they had roughly 20 minutes to render a decision about one of the most important races on the planet — what pressure!

So, it could be surmised that the recent scrutiny, coupled with the historical moment, pushed them to act on an agenda.

To turn the situation on its head, though, what if the stewards had dropped the objections? Would we be talking about these events today? And for that matter, would horse racing opponents be crowing that the sport had once again turned its back on fairness and safety?

The will to act didn’t solely drive this situation — it wasn’t inevitable. Convergences intersected along several complicated lines producing a nexus. Under a flawed system that was beset by long-term historical precedents, we left it to the professionals, not the amateurs, and they handed down a ruling that was a departure from the history.

I don’t think it matters whether the stewards made the right choice in taking down Maximum Security. We will have to leave that to the future.

What I think is more significant for us to understand is that the factors that contributed to the moment had to fall into place. Time will tell what effect the choice will have on horse racing.

For now, we just have to mull over how convergences created a different Derby. Nothing like irony, whether it be a Shakespearean tragedy or not.

Recall, what’s past is definitely prologue.

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