There has long been an unwritten rule in any newspaper office I work in when it comes to my opinion pieces: I’m not allowed to write about horse racing.
I get it. I live in Saskatchewan. This is not a thoroughbred racing hotbed, despite this province’s agricultural roots.
This province has one race track: Marquis Downs in Saskatoon. I think they’re celebrating 50 years this year. There are some good people at Marquis, but it’s not exactly one of the marquee tracks in Canada.
(They did recently make the mistake of introducing an admission fee for fans 18 and over).
For one day a year, thoroughbred racing fans get their day in the North American sporting spotlight: the Kentucky Derby.
Yes, the racing is actually better for Breeders’ Cup weekend in November. But for whatever reason, the eyes of the sports world are fixed on Kentucky that first Saturday in May.
(They’ll also be fixed on the Belmont Stakes in New York the second Saturday in June if there’s a chance to have a Triple Crown winner).
Anyways, the Kentucky Derby has long been bigger than the Super Bowl in my family. Even before my folks bought a horse farm in Aldergrove, B.C., in 1999, the Derby was the time when you stopped what you were doing.
I didn’t get a chance to get a good look at the list of entries for this year’s race until the night before the Derby, after pre-race favourite Omaha Beach was already scratched. But once I crunched the numbers, I found my pick: the No. 7 horse, Maximum Security.
He had two things going for him that I look for in a Derby pick: he had a great year as a three-year-old (there’s a huge difference in terms of development between a two-year-old and a three-year-old horse). And he had won the Florida Derby, which is one of the marquee Derby prep races.
When the Derby began, and Maximum Security jumped to the lead, I was even more confident, since it was a muddy track, and horses like having mud kicked into their face as much as humans.
By now, most people know the rest of the story. Coming out of the fourth turn, Maximum Security veered to the outside, and recovered to win the race over Country House, a 65-1 longshot.
I was texting my mother, lamenting the fact that I didn’t bet a few bucks on the No. 7 horse to win when I looked up at the television screen. I know an inquiry when I see it.
Twenty-two minutes later, we knew the result: Maximum Security had been disqualified, the first disqualification from an on-track violation in race history. Country House, the 65-1 longshot, was the winner – the second-longest odds for a Derby winner in race history.
Ultimately, the right decision was made. If this had been a mid-week claiming race at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, and a horse veered like that and nearly took out much of the field, then that horse would have been disqualified promptly.
But because it was the Kentucky Derby, the stewards were leery to make such a difficult decision, even if it was the right one.
When you watch the replay, and you see the still photos of Maximum Security moving to the outside, you see how close it was to a catastrophe. He nearly clipped heels with the No. 1 horse, War of Will, who actually was my darkhorse pick (forgive me for the pun).
If War of Will would have gone down, then we would have been talking about a horrible catastrophe, because he likely would have taken down several horses with him, and I would be writing a very different column about the future of the sport.
Kudos to the jockey of War of Will for his actions to avert such a situation.
At the same time, it’s unfortunate that Maximum Security and his jockey will be associated with this incident. It wasn’t deliberate. Maximum Security went wide. It happens on a daily basis at every track in the country.
It’s just that on this occasion, it was the most high-profile race of the year, with millions of people watching.
The owners of Maximum Security are appealing, and a successful appeal would change the record books, and give the connections for Maximum Security the winner’s share of the purse.
But they won’t get to enjoy the thrill of the victory in the winner’s circle on Derby Day in front of a massive television audience.
And the payouts have already been made to the bettors. You’re not going to go to someone who bet $1,000 to win on Country House, and ask them to return their $65,000 in earnings.
There’s been a lot of debate since the Derby as to whether the right decision was made. The horse racing community is split. I was undecided, until I saw all of the evidence.
It’s kept the Derby in the discussion well after the biggest race of the year.