AP NEWS

Inside the strangest 22 minutes in Kentucky Derby history

May 7, 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two landline phones in a metal box hang on a wall near the jockey scales at 144-year-old Churchill Downs. They usually sit there idly, especially during and after the annual Kentucky Derby. If lifted, they ring directly to the stewards’ stand six floors above. On Saturday, two jockeys picked up one of the old phones.

The first, Jon Court, at 58 the oldest man ever to ride in a Kentucky Derby, complained that his 17th-place horse, Long Range Toddy, had suffered the effects of interference from apparent wire-to-wire winner Maximum Security as the 19-horse field turned toward the top of the stretch.

The second, runner-up Country House jockey Flavien Prat, quickly added his objection under direction from trainer Bill Mott. Mott was also the trainer for fourth-place finisher Tacitus, whose jockey, Jose Ortiz, had dismounted and said the initial result should be “taken down,” as the parlance goes.

A third jockey significantly affected by Maximum Security, Tyler Gaffalione, whose War of Will nearly got entangled with the veering leader, did not call.

The three stewards upstairs answering the two calls, one woman and two men, began 21 minutes and 57 seconds of analyzing the race amid the kind of rarefied pressure that can come only from 150,729 spectators, millions of TV viewers and dozens of horse connections. As they studied the videotape, they’d refer to the horses by their saddle numbers, not by their names.

“They talk in numbers,” Kentucky Racing Commission Executive Director Marc Guilfoil said Monday. “They don’t say, ‘the Baffert horse’ or anything” — a reference to Bob Baffert, the sport’s top trainer of the moment. “They talk in numbers. If they don’t see a number, they might say ‘the gray horse in the background’ or something.”

Said Guilfoil, who has done the job in lesser circumstances, “The worst thing you can do is rush.”

For maybe the 22 strangest minutes in Kentucky Derby history, they did not rush.

The exulting stops

In picking up the phone, the jockeys had rung Barbara Borden, the chief steward, a former teen 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.”

Another steward was Butch Becraft, a Kentuckian who had done just about as many jobs as Borden and had spent ample time atop horses, a vantage point valuable to a steward. The third was Tyler Picklesimer, whose jobs around Kentucky racetracks have included posts as assistant racing secretary and racing secretary at Turfway Park near Cincinnati.

Guilfoil, their boss, had gone upstairs to visit them several races earlier on 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.”

He paused.

“I’ve never said that before,” he said. “Now I’ve got something to put on top” of the stressful list.

The stewards, who can make their own inquiry even without jockey complaints, did not lodge one in this case, for reasons still unexplained because they did not take questions afterward and have still not spoken publicly.

The crowd waited. Those connected to Maximum Security exulted. The horse’s 62-year-old trainer, Jason Servis, hugged his 60-year-old brother, John Servis, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2004 with Smarty Jones.

Then the exulting stopped.

Luis Saez, Maximum Security’s 26-year-old Panamanian jockey, finished pumping his arms in victory and took on a protracted look of torment. “I thought I never put anybody in danger,” he would say later. “My horse shied away from the noise of the crowd and may have ducked out a little.”

Gary and Mary West, Maximum Security’s owners, waited in an aching place: the winner’s circle.

Todd Pletcher, who has trained more Kentucky Derby entries (54) than any other trainer, and who had two in the race finish 11th and 18th, watched intently. He figured the stewards would refrain from rearranging the result, this being the Kentucky Derby. But he began to wonder as more time passed.

Kenny Rice, a 20-year NBC reporter on horse racing, left his spot next to Baffert in the paddock and headed down a tunnel toward the muddy track. He reached Mott, the Country House trainer whom he has known for 25 years. After gathering Mott’s initial and somewhat surprising reaction — that the result already would be overturned were this an anonymous midweek race — Rice stood with him for what seemed many more minutes.

“I never got the feeling that he was anticipating that he was going to be declared the winner,” Rice said. “I got a feeling that he thought he could have a chance.”

Surrounded by reporters, Mott fielded question after question after question. “In stressful situations,” Rice said, “sometimes it’s nice to just keep talking to somebody.”

Said Prat, “It took quite long. And usually, when it takes so long, it’s a good sign. But, I mean, I was not in the steward office, obviously.”

Said Guilfoil, “How long it takes doesn’t mean anything to me, just so they do the right thing.”

As the time passed, the thinking evolved toward hope, Mott would say Sunday. “I wasn’t counting the chickens before they hatch,” he said. “You know, I just waited. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just know that in these types of races, that they are very reluctant to have to take the horse down. I mean, they don’t want to have to do it for, you know, a lot of reasons.

“I mean, the horse that they took down was, I guess, the post-time favorite, and you know, a lot of people have spent millions of dollars on that horse, so it’s going to affect a lot of people. So they want to make the right decision. They want to make a fair decision. And I think that’s why they looked at it for so long.”

Another factor would figure into the near-22 minutes, as Guilfoil pointed out. The decision to disqualify could take some time, but then the rearranging of the finishes in a giant field could take significantly more time.

Go by the book

The decision registered on the racetrack board. Country House had won the first 24-minute Kentucky Derby. Maximum Security had gone disqualified into 17th place. Country House had been moved from second place to winner. The crowd made sort of a mass gasp.

In a wrenching scene, Darren Rogers, the Churchill Downs communications director, had the hard task of going to get a winner’s bouquet of roses from Mary West, telling her, “I’m so sorry.”

Jaime Roth, one of the barrel of owners of Country House, would say, “This sport throws curveballs at you every day. I mean, most of the news is not great news. So you’re going to take what you can get and run with it.”

Even after the madness of 1933 when two jockeys just about wrestled each other atop their horses in the stretch, and 1968, when a winner met disqualification four days later because of a positive drug test, the 145th Derby had become the first with a winner disqualified for an in-race infraction.

“She’s been everything on a racetrack,” Guilfoil said of Borden, the chief steward. “She’s very well-rounded. She’s been a placing judge, a horse identifier. That’s what makes her special. That’s what makes her good. Because she’s done all the jobs. She knows what it entails.”

About two hours later, Borden turned up, flanked by Becraft and Picklesimer, and read a statement. She said the stewards’ decision had been unanimous. She read in the clinical dialect of stewards, “The horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify No. 7 and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.” She took no questions.

Hours before, the phone upstairs had rung. “There’s no emotion in us,” said Guilfoil, himself a former steward. “There’s no money wagered. There’s no favorites. With owners, with gamblers, there’s emotions.” He soon added, “You’ve got a book. You’ve got a rule book to go by. Stay within the rule book, and you’re good.”