The 145th, known heretofore as the craziest Kentucky Derby ever! I will endeavor to clear up a few questions I’ve been asked, and in the process bust a few myths and opine here and there. I’ll try to go in chronological order. Perhaps John Steinbeck said it best—even back in 1956:
“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
Interviewing the “winning” connections:
No, I could not see the race. From my position on horseback I stand behind the starting gate as the horses leave the gate for the Kentucky Derby. Then, while the horses are racing in a counter clockwise direction, my horse and I gallop around the track along the outside fence, in a clockwise motion. As the horses head toward us down the backside we pull up on the outside fence (with two Churchill Downs outriders alongside) and stand still as the pack of horses races past us. This is at about the ½-mile pole.
Once the horses have passed, we then proceed down the backside so that we will be in position to meet the winning jockey after the race. I am listening to Larry Collmus’s call of the race (through my NBC earpiece) throughout, but see only the small portion of the race where the horses race past me at the ½-mile pole.
When the horses pass the finish line and I know who the winner is, I may take a quick glance at my notes (or not) and then, once clear of the other horses who are galloping out after the race, I approach the winning rider who by then, is already with the outrider—after the Kentucky Derby, that outrider is Greg Blasi.
The Claim of Foul:
Churchill Downs has what is referred to as “fast official” which means that if a jockey wishes to lodge a claim of foul against another competitor, they are required to do so as they are galloping out. They lodge this claim of foul with one of the outriders and the outrider relays the information to the stewards. If a claim of foul has been lodged against the winning rider in this timely manner, then it is normally lodged before I would have a chance to approach the winning rider for an interview.
And if a claim of foul has been lodged, then I am not allowed to interview the jockey. If I did I would be “detaining a witness”. The stewards want the jockey to be able to get back to the unsaddling area and on the phone with them right away so that they can speak with the rider to gain his/her perspective of the situation in question.
In the case of this year’s Kentucky Derby, neither I nor the outrider who was leading Saez’s horse back were notified of a claim of foul. I subsequently learned that the foul was lodged with one of the outriders during the time that I was interviewing Saez. We (NBC) did not learn about a claim of foul until after our correspondent, Nick Luck, had interviewed “winning” trainer, Jason Servis.
After interviewing Saez I returned to the frontside of the track and from there, could see that the stewards were looking at a situation around the turn and from several different camera views (what they were viewing was also being shown on the infield big screen). It did not take me long to realize that a rather egregious infraction had occurred. In fact, I would say that within five minutes I knew the number was coming down. So, what took so long for the stewards to make their decision?
The 22 minute wait:
In this situation Maximum Security had bothered, not one horse, but several horses. So the stewards had to watch the replays over and over and over again to figure out exactly how many horses he had interfered with, who those horses were, and where they finished, so that they could place the offending horse behind the offended. And, for Pete’s sake, it’s the Kentucky Derby, you have to get it right.
In addition to that, the stewards said that when the objection from Prat came in they were in the midst of deciding who they would call “specials” on. The first place finisher of every race is always (urine and blood) tested at the detention barn after the race but there are also “specials” called on other horses. These can be horses that either under-performed or over-performed (based on their odds) or are simply randomly selected.
And then, of course, in the midst of all of this, they get the subsequent phone call from Jon Court (rider of Long Range Toddy) who also claimed to have been interfered with. He did not lodge his claim of foul with one of the outriders, he waited until he got back and picked up the phone and the riders’ scale and called the stewards.
No “Inquiry” sign posted:
Everyone is up in arms that the stewards didn’t also post the “Inquiry” sign and I get that—they should have. But once you step back and look at all of the matters that the stewards were handling, it’s a little easier to see how posting the inquiry sign either slipped their minds or seemed like a moot point.
Did they make the right call?:
Fast forward to the ultimate disqualification. Yes, I believe the stewards made the right decision. You can move from the 2 path to the 12 path as long as you are clear of other horses but you cannot move from the 2 to 5 path suddenly and unpredictably and impede the progress of other horses. In this case Maximum Security’s abrupt course-change nearly caused another horse (or more) to fall. That could’ve been really bad.
I’ve watched the replay of the Kentucky Derby a hundred times and from multiple angles. Yes, I’ve seen every video that has been posted on Twitter, the Courier-Journal, Facebook, etc. No, there is no compelling evidence to convince me that anyone caused Maximum Security to spook and duck out other than the crowd noise. When you slow the footage down to a snail’s pace, it obfuscates the split second in which this happened and makes it look like the riders behind Saez had more time to react. They had a split second. No more.
What exactly happened?:
I have never ridden in the Kentucky Derby, but I’ve been on the track for it. From my own experience and from what the jockeys tell me who have ridden in the Kentucky Derby, the noise from the crowd when they begin to turn for home is literally like hitting a wall of sound.
Horses are herd animals and Maximum Security is a young, lightly raced horse. Yes, they are all three years old, but Maximum Security had only raced one time at age two, and of the four times that he had raced prior to the Kentucky Derby, he had never faced anything like what he experienced with the crowd and crowd noise of the Derby.
In watching the reply (again and again and again) it looks like he began to come out of the final turn, heard the crowd noise and went, “What the ____??? I’m not going out there by myself! No way!!!” In an effort to shy away, he ducked out sharply and in so doing, lost just enough momentum for the other horses to catch him.
Again, they are herd animals. So, when the other horses joined him he became a bit more confident, emboldened if you will, and began to run with the speed with which he had been blessed. But, the damage had been done.
Was Luis Saez at fault?:
With regard to Luis Saez’s contribution to any of this—or lack thereof, I hold Saez blameless in his actions. His horse simply shied and ducked. Saez immediately made every action to correct him. It’s important to note that he used both the left rein (to pull him back into his previously established running path) and his riding crop (slapping Maximum Security’s shoulder repeatedly) to right his course. I really did not believe that Saez would receive a riding suspension.
The riding suspension:
However, in the aftermath of it all, Saez refused to admit that his horse’s actions had put anyone in harm’s way. I get why he adopted this position immediately—he didn’t want his horse to be disqualified—but once the horse was disqualified and once the replays showed irrefutable evidence to the contrary, it’s time to admit that his horse clearly ducked out and impeded the path(s) of others.
As an apprentice rider you are required to view racing films every day with the stewards. It’s part of the learning process. So, even if you haven’t done anything wrong in a race—even if you didn’t ride the day before—you have to view any and all films that the stewards are reviewing with other riders so that you can learn from their mistakes (or their horse’s mistakes). It’s not unusual for a horse to be disqualified even though the rider isn’t given a suspension because, as was the case with Saez and Maximum Security, in many cases it is simply the horse making a sharp right or left while the jockey is doing all they can to correct their course. It is in these film-viewing sessions that a young rider learns what to say—and what not to say.
So, you will ask me, if Saez was doing what he could to correct Maximum Security, why was he suspensded? While I hold Saez blameless for his actions, he did not articulate a better understanding of the situation in its aftermath:
The stewards need to hear from the jockey that the rider understands why what happened was potentially dangerous to others. And the stewards need to believe that the jockey did all he or she could to prevent/correct the dangerous situation, and that they would do everything to prevent this type of situation for reoccurring in the future (if possible).
It’s possible that Saez was under advice from his attorney—and the Wests’ attorney—to deny, deny, deny. But, by not admitting that his horse’s actions put others in danger, he put himself in a position to get the riding suspension. Add to this that Saez had already had multiple riding suspensions, and it becomes easy to imagine that the stewards might think, “Well, he cannot see how he endangered others and he’s already had multiple 7-day suspensions. Perhaps he needs a 15-day break from racing this time to see his way clear.” While I put the stewards’ plausible thoughts in quotations here, I will add that I have not spoken with the stewards nor am I speaking for them. Simply opining.
THE 20 HORSE FIELD:
I do not believe that the Kentucky Derby should be adjudicated differently than any other race—in fact, it should be held to even higher standard. I do not believe that the 20 horse field had anythingto do with this and I don’t think the field size for the Derby should be reduced, although it would be fine with me if it were. I’ve covered the Derby for 19 years now for NBC Sports and not even once have I ever heard a rider complain that there were too many horses in the race.
I do believe that adding a 20 horse starting gate to Churchill Downs’ set of starting gates would be a great idea, but of course, this has nothing to do with this year’s incident. Going forward, anytime there is a 20 horse field in the Derby, the horse in the #1 post will always be at a disadvantage because they are 3-4 strides away from running into the inside fence and so that horse’s rider is forced to send hard or take back. This is not a good position to be in and it should be a fair start for everyone. But, alas, I digress.
On Addressing the argument: “I’VE SEEN 5 OR 6 KENTUCKY DERBIES THAT WERE ROUGHER THAN the 145th AND NO ONE WAS DISQUALIFIED!”
Really? Name one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this and, yet, aside from pointing out interference at the start of the race, no one has been able to identify a Kentucky Derby winner who interfered with other horses more egregiously than Maximum Security did during the running of this race.
As for the start, all bets are off there and they always have been. The logic is (and I believe it is sound logic) that a horse has the entire rest of the race to overcome trouble at the start. Add to that that 98.5% of horses break relatively straight, which is what a jockey is always intending and expecting.
When a horse breaks sharply to the left or right, it is very difficult to anticipate this and it takes 2-3 jumps to correct. As long as the jockey appears to be doing all they can to correct a wayward horse’s sharp turn at the start, they will rarely be disqualified for their horse’s mistake. This is just the way it is.
All of that said, I understand that others will harbor opinions not aligned with mine and I’m ok with that. My mother was a jockey. My brother and sister were both jockeys. I was a jockey. I have thusly spent my entire life seeing and assessing situations just like the ones outlined above—they just weren’t in the Kentucky Derby.
All of the opinions stated here are my own and I respect everyone else’s opinions as well.
Namaste (the light in me honors the light in you),
Donna is one of the most decorated female jockeys of all time. Now retired from race-riding, she is currently an award winning sports analyst and commentator for NBC, and the author of the book, “Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing”, which is now in its second printing. When she’s not on location, or in meetings, you can find her writing, reading, traveling and spending time with her husband Frank and her two dogs.