The Derby: What went Right?

It was a Kentucky Derby like no other.

The public pall cast by the 23 deaths at Santa Anita Park’s race meet hung over this year’s Derby.

This led to proposed reforms and much soul searching. What defined public opinion on the state of horse racing were the media accounts that questioned the sport’s tone deafness to humane issues with some even questioning the sport’s very existence.

Everyone in the industry was on a knife’s edge to see if something awful would blow up the industry.

Fortunately, we did not get awful.

We did, however, get something unprecedented: the first in-race disqualification of a Kentucky Derby in 145 runnings.

The stewards’ disqualification of Maximum Security from 1st to 18th place has led to a lot of barroom talk (and, of course, its 21st century equivalent of Twitter, Facebook, and so on).

Like a very big call in any major sporting event, EVERYONE has an opinion.

Much of these opinions are evidence of either special interest or people trying to apply their standard of fairness to a claim of foul in a horse race. Very few in the general public, however, know the intricacies of determining a riding infraction and its application in determining the results of a race. Many have used analogies of other sports, like basketball, where officials will be reluctant to call fouls during a big game and let the teams “just play.”

The Stewards

On May 6, a The Washington Post piece by Chuck Culpepper titled, “‘The worst thing you can do is rush’: Inside the strangest 22 minutes in Kentucky Derby history,” is illuminating and well worth a read.

In this piece Mr. Culpepper describes Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s chief steward, Barbara Borden:

“She is a former teenage clarinetist who finished high school near Cleveland in 1978, veered to work at the Thistledown track and spent the next decades in Ohio, Florida, California and Kentucky, doing just about every job a racetrack ecosystem offers. She had become a longtime Kentuckian.

“The one thing is to try to keep a level head,” she told the Daily Racing Form in 2013 of her position at Churchill Downs. “It sounds trite, but there’s racing here year-round, and things happen all the time. The Derby is another race, although obviously there’s a lot going on and millions of people are watching. You just hope you could exercise the same judgment for that race that you would for any race on any given day. Stay calm and look like it’s happening on a regular Thursday.”

And that is just what Ms. Borden did, along with her associates, stewards Butch Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer.

Their public statement describing the decision is just what you would expect — brief, direct, and by the book.

Here is Ms. Borden’s statement on behalf of the stewards:

“Good evening. The riders of the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and 20 (Country House) horses in the Kentucky Derby lodged objections against the 7 [Maximum Security] horse, the winner, due to interference turning for home leaving the quarter pole. We had a lengthy review of the race. We interviewed affected riders. We determined that the 7 horse drifted out and impacted the progress of number 1, in turn interfering with the 18 and 21 (Bodexpress). Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind the 18, 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”

The Executive Director

Marc Guilfoil is the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. He is smart, savvy, and seasoned. All those attributes were on display last weekend.

Here is an excerpt of The Washington Post piece:

“Guilfoil, their boss, had gone upstairs to visit them several races earlier Saturday, but now, with the Kentucky Derby result under review, he waited downstairs with everyone else.

“I felt for them in the fact that I know what pressure they’re ­under,” but he felt also his “respect and faith in them. They’re going to do the right thing and give the right call. I know them all. They’re uncrackable.” He called stewards “a special breed” who have “got to be able to move with the flow, because you settle everything from, ‘Somebody stole my feed’ to a placing in the Kentucky Derby.””

Mr. Guilfoil is an accredited steward. But that wasn’t his job on Derby day. So, he exercised excellent judgment by staying out of the stewards’ stand while the ruminations over the claim of foul were in progress.

Oh, by the way, his comments to the press — pitch perfect.

The Commission

On Monday, May 6, two days after the race, the owner of Maximum Security, Gary West, filed an appeal of the stewards’ disqualification.

The appeal was denied the same day. The rules of Kentucky do not allow an appeal of an in-race disqualification. There is nothing unusual about the denial. Kentucky’s rule is similar to racing’s national model rule, which allows the stewards to be the final arbiter (on an administrative level) due to their unique training and expertise.

Thank You

We all can be critical of the racing industry. Heaven knows there is no shortage of issues to debate.

On the other hand, when something is done well, that also deserves our attention and praise.

The racing industry should be proud of the fine job done by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

I know I am.

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