If there’s a moral to the 145th Kentucky Derby, it’s that you can’t take the gambling out of gambling. But try telling that to horse people, those incurable lottery addicts. The stewards of Churchill Downs imposed an artificial order on 19 horses searching for solid footing while stampeding in a mire, the brown water pooling in mud-trench harrows, while 150,000 people wearing flower pots on their heads hollered at them. What sense did any of it make? The final result, Maximum Security disqualified for committing a “foul” by straying wide, to hand the roses to Country House, was just another attempt by silly humans to mask the astounding risk. Let’s be clear. This entire sport is a foul.
It all starts with the owners and breeders, who perpetually try to beat nature with their bank accounts, at the expense of the horses. As if you can control the things that get born in a barn, separate out the intended from the intended, the champions from the ponies and donkeys and goats. Think for a moment about all the factors that have to line up just right for a Kentucky Derby runner to be foaled and safely reach the age of three, how unpredictably the spinning-wheel of genetics must stop on just the right alignment of bone and spirit to produce a creature that can hold up while galloping at 45 miles an hour and strike the ground with a force of 5,500 pounds per square inch, on legs shaped like a beauty-contestant’s. It’s all chance. Frightening, terrifying chance.
Yet here came the human interference at the finish line of the Derby, trying to impose a numbered first-to-last list on the dangerous chaos and seek some kind of, what, justice? You’ve got to be kidding. A foul? They called a foul because Maximum Security with Luis Saez aboard swerved out of his “lane”? “He’s a baby,” Saez said rightly of his horse. Where, pray tell, was the discernible lane in all that muck and rain and screaming and flogging and young animal surging? Where is the “lane” in a sport beset by medication overuse, and purse-structures that incentivize racing horses even when they are hurt, in which the jockeys whip-beat their horses to the finish on a clearly unsafe wet surface the substance of farina?
This isn’t sport, it’s a fancied-up vice. Horse people counted on the excitement of the Derby to obscure the fact that 23 horses died at Santa Anita this winter, and Churchill Downs, too, is one of the deadliest tracks in America. All you could think, during the long 22 minutes that the stewards took to review the film, as the walkers led the steaming, mud-caked contestants in cool-down circles while great plumed exhalations came from their nostrils, was “I don’t give a damn who won, somebody just please get these horses out of the mud, and check their legs, and dry their coats and give them something to drink.”
The great irony was that the stewards made the right decision, so far as they were concerned with safety. The rules clearly state, “if a leading horse, or any other horse in a race, swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with or intimidate or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause same, it is a foul,” and “any offending horses may be disqualified …”
As Country House’s trainer Bill Mott said of the scrum as they came to the final stretch, “There’s a couple of riders that nearly clipped heels and went down in there.” Maximum Security came out of the final turn and at the roars from the crowd, he got “a little bit scared,” and shied, moving wide. A chilling close-up video shows how nearly Maximum Security’s back legs came to interlocking with the front legs of War of Will and creating a catastrophic fall. The stewards had to make the decision they did, if only to show a nominal concern for the well-being of the field.
An old trainer once said, “A million things have to go right to win a race. Only one thing has to go wrong to lose it.” That’s the real truth. And only one thing has to go wrong for a horse to die. You can’t take the chance out of gambling, or the risk either.
Thoroughbreds would run even if a soul wasn’t watching, and like all great athletes, sometimes their ambition outstrips their bodies and they hurt themselves. But that doesn’t absolve their human handlers of the responsibility to mitigate the risk. There are some tracks that hurt horses more than others, and Churchill Downs is one of them, and everybody in this beautiful-turned-rotten game knows it.
As far as chance and luck go, Churchill Downs is just lucky it doesn’t have a horror on its hands. The stewards’ controversy should not distract from some critical soul searching over Santa Anita, or fool anyone into thinking that the sport’s responsibilities to the health of the horses have been adequately met. As the veteran Louisville Courier-Journal journalist Tim Sullivan has pointed out, 43 thoroughbreds have been injured at Churchill Downs since 2016, a death rate of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which is 50 percent higher than the national average. Yet not until two weeks ago, amid scrutiny of its track record in the wake of the Santa Anita debacle, did Churchill Downs move to institute any common sense reforms. It will install an equine medical center and surveillance cameras in barns, and advocate for medication reform. There’s a start.
Thoroughbred racing is in the midst of a moral sickness: its leaders have lacked the will to organize and implement some basic best practices though everyone has known for years now they would reduce fatalities. Control the use of masking medications. Monitor track consistency and moisture. Standardize pre-race examination protocols. Make it easier for jockeys to scratch at the gate. And curb the evil habit by track officials of pressuring trainers to fill the fields. All of these were recommended by a 2012 task force after a spate of catastrophic injuries at Aqueduct, when 21 horses broke down in a year. To date there are only piecemeal measure at tracks in crisis, with piles of dead carcasses.
The old saw that horse people really love their animals won’t wash anymore. When, exactly, are they going to start showing it? The only Derby result anyone should be happy about is that the horses made it safely back to the barns. This time.