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Kentucky Derby Disqualification: Unpopular, Not Unprecedented

The decision to disqualify the unofficial winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security, has become the most decisive issue in modern horse racing in the span of a few short hours.

Disqualifications, though rare, do happen as racing rules are enforced in races and tracks across the country. Though we do not witness disqualifications in such high-profile events often, they have occurred, and there are state statutes and rules to outline the definition of racing interference and consequences.

The decision was unpopular. It was also accurate and not with precedent.

Maximum Security: The Second Disqualified Derby Winner

The circumstances were different, but Maximum Security was not the first unofficial Kentucky Derby winner to be disqualified. Dancer’s Image crossed the wire first in the 1968 running of the Kentucky Derby. However, the horse was disqualified later when it returned a positive post-race drug test. Traces of the therapeutic medication phenylbutazone were found in its urine sample.

Upon the disqualification of the winner, Forward Pass was named the official winner of the Derby.

Famous disqualifications

There have been other high-profile incidents in stakes races that resulted in inquiries, objections and disqualifications.

A decision to disqualify a stakes winner happened in the $1,000,000 Cotillion Stakes (G1) last September at Parx. The race boiled down to a stretch battle between Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl. Both were talented, but Monomoy Girl was the heavy favorite, having won multiple stakes races that year, including the Kentucky Oaks. Later that year, she would be one of three nominees for Champion Horse of the Year, joining the likes of Triple Crown winner Justify.

Unfortunately, Monomoy Girl drifted out into the path of Midnight Bisou, whose rider, Mike Smith, lodged a claim of foul because the leader was not clear of the horse behind it, and his horse only lost by a head. Monomoy Girl was disqualified and placed second in what was viewed as a controversial decision. Compared to the recent interference in the Kentucky Derby, Monomoy Girl’s interference was likely less severe, but still interference.

There are other notable occasions of disqualifications. Secret Gesture was disqualified in the $700,000 Beverly D. Stakes (G1) at Arlington for interference with third-place finisher Stephanie’s Kitten. The unofficial winner was placed behind Stephanie’s Kitten and the second-place finisher, who was not involved in the incident, was named the winner.

One of Affirmed and Alydar’s legendary ten duels ended in disqualification of Affirmed to give Alydar the win. Even Secretariat was disqualified in one of his starts as a 2-year-old, when he interfered slightly with Stop the Music in the 1972 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. It would be the only loss of this 2-year-old year.

Inaction can be worse than no action. Many horseplayers agree than an obvious foul occurred in the running of the $5,000,000 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but no action was taken because it happened at the start of the race. Bayern, the eventual winner of the race, broke out at the start and knocked post-time favorite and expected winner Shared Belief off-stride. Far behind the leader after the break, it took the champion the entire race to try to catch up, finishing fourth in a frustrating running of the most prestigious races in North America.

Horse racing rules

Rules and regulations of the sport exist and govern the sport every day at tracks across the country. The Association of Racing Commissioners International is the umbrella organization of the official governing rulemaking bodies for professional horse racing and works with racing commissioners and industry experts to create and update a set of model rules that states adopt fully or in part.

Racing regulation covers all aspects of the sport. It governs requirements for state-bred breeding programs, licensing of employees and horsemen, pari-mutuel wagering, and the running of the race, among other aspects. Contrary to what some may think, racing is a highly regulated sport.

All state rules address the situations that can occur during the running of a race, including what happens if a gate does not open, what happens if there is a dead heat, or what happens when there is interference.

Interference is always subject to review at a minimum, and stewards have the right to disqualify those committing the foul.

Racetrack referees

All participants in racing must adhere to the racing rules. It is up to the stewards of the track to enforce and uphold all rules.

Each track has three stewards to preside over its live racing meet. Stewards are professionals with hours of training, shadowing and experience in the stewards’ stand and around the track, as pilots rack up flight hours. They attend extensive classroom training and must pass multiple exams, as lawyers do with the bar exam. Stewards are held to high standards and command the respect of the track employees and horsemen.

Much of what a steward does is behind the scenes, but they also act as referees during live racing. Equipped with multiple video feeds and angles in their perch high above the track, it is up to them to ensure a fair, legal and safe contest takes place.

Inquiry, objection, disqualification

If a steward spots something in a race that they feel warrants a closer look, he or she may call for an inquiry into the running of the race. An inquiry means simply that the stewards want time to examine a particular aspect of a race before the race is declared official. Once a race has been declared official, there can be no change in the order of finish other than that which can occur as a result of a failed drug test.

Concurrent or independently, there may also be an objection into the running of a race. Inquiries tend to be more common, but an objection can always be made if the rider or trainer of a horse feels that another rider and horse committed a foul. Only a jockey or trainer may make a claim of foul.

Stewards will hear from the jockey or trainer making the objection as well as hear from the jockey against whom a claim of foul has been made.

Not all inquiries or objections result in a disqualification, but when one occurs, the horse that committed a foul is placed behind the horse that he interfered with. Sometimes a horse who commits a foul will cause a chain reaction or interfere with multiple horses; if that is the case, he will be placed behind the horse involved who finished the farthest back.

One aspect of disqualifications that can make them difficult to support is that they do not always right the wrong of a horse who was fouled. If the offending horse is taken down, the horse that finished second is moved up to first, regardless of how much it was involved or not involved in the incident.

Racing rules in Kentucky

The rules of racing clearly denote that interference can be caused when a horse that is in the lead veers out into another horse when it is not clear.

A horse may switch paths as long as it is clear of the horses behind them. This is common; however, a jockey must always check to see that there is room to do so, much like a driver changing lanes on the highway.

The rules for racing in Kentucky are located in Title 810 of the Kentucky Administrative Regulations. The section on fouls reads as follows:

Section 12. Fouls. A leading horse if clear is entitled to any part of the track. If a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause the same result, this action shall be deemed a foul. If a jockey strikes another horse or jockey, it is a foul. If in the opinion of the stewards a foul alters the finish of a race, an offending horse may be disqualified by the stewards.

The Kentucky Derby disqualification

Watching multiple angles of the running of the 145th Kentucky Derby clearly show that Maximum Security veered into not just the path of another horse, but into the horse itself, a clear violation of the above rule.

Why the horse did so is unknown; jockey Luis Saez said that his horse spooked from the crown as they came around the final turn. Maximum Security was among the least experienced horses in the field, with only four previous starts, all at one racetrack, and only one start in a stakes race for which there would be a crowd.

It was not intentional interference on the part of Maximum Security or Luis Saez. No one blames the horse or rider in this instance; in fact, one could argue that Saez did a good job of correcting the swerve and keeping the horse from running into more horses.

But, it is the stewards’ role to uphold the rules of the sport and protect the safety of all racing participants. The unofficial winner of the Kentucky Derby did interfere with another horse, which in turn set off a chain reaction, cost multiple horses a better placing, and worst of all, could have resulted in a terrible on-track accident.

It was not the stewards’ intention to punish Saez or the connections of the winning horse, but to apply the rules consistently. Allowing an incident such as that to pass without issue can send the wrong message to riders and suggest that regulators will turn a blind eye toward irresponsible race riding or other unsafe actions in a race.

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