Stewards debated long and hard whether Maximum Security, who finished 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Country House and jockey Flavien Prat, impeded War of Will and others when he and jockey Luis Saez moved out from the rail and affected the outcome of the mile-and-a-quarter classic. It was the first time a winner was disqualified for interference in the run for the roses.
The decision is sure to be discussed for decades to come because Maximum Security clearly appeared to be the best horse in the race after setting torrid fractions – the opening half-mile went in a sizzling 46 3/5 seconds – and withstanding them well. Saez said the colt was reacting to the tremendous crowd when he moved away from the rail and that he straightened him as quickly as possible.
The certainty is that Country House produced the second-largest payoff for a $2 win wager in Derby history, returning a robust $132.40, and gave Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott a Derby triumph that had been maddeningly elusive.
“It was an odd way to do it and we hate to back into these things,” said Mott, 66. “It was a bittersweet moment.”
Mott added, “We’ll just have to prove ourselves in the future.”
Mott, best known for his handwork with older horses and with grass runners, had been winless with eight previous starters. He made his first attempt back in 1984, when Taylor’s Special was not at all special in lagging in 13th. His best finish occurred last year, when Hofburg took seventh.
Mott could not help but empathize with the connections of Maximum Security, a homebred for long-time owners Gary and Mary West. They were seeking their first Derby score and also had Game Winner, the 2-year-old champion, in the 19-horse field. Game Winner wound up fifth.
“My heart actually aches for them a little bit, but that’s the way it is,” Mott said.
Mott, saying he did everything he could to watch the replay with an unbiased eye, endorsed the decision. “He came out three paths and he bothered two horses,” he said, adding, “I think if it had been an ordinary race on a Wednesday, they would have taken the winner down.”
Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security, was emotional immediately after the finish. He believed he had joined his sibling, John, in becoming the first set of brothers to train Derby winners. John saddled Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones to Derby and Preakness wins in 2004.
Then the objection was lodged and fans in the massive crowd, many of them clutching betting slips that could be worth large amounts or nothing at all, endured a wait of more than 15 minutes as stewards scrutinized the action from every available angle.
The top finishers after Country House were declared to be Code of Honor, the Mott-trained Tacitus, and two of Bob Baffert’s trainees, Improbable and Game Winner. Baffert was foiled in his attempt to join Ben Jones with a record-tying sixth Derby victory. In another startling development, Master Fencer of Japan, who had shown little before this, ran a credible sixth.
Country House has been quite a project for Mott and his capable staff. The chestnut son of Lookin At Lucky came up empty in two starts as a 2-year-old. He broke his maiden by 3 ½ lengths on Jan. 17 at Gulfstream Park in Florida only to fall short in three Derby prep races. He placed second in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, fourth in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
“I’ve been telling people all winter if this horse ever wakes up and figures out what he’s doing, a mile and a quarter (of the Derby) is certainly within his reach and not to discount him,” Mott said.
The race had already taking a wrenching turn before it was run. Omaha Beach, the early favorite, was removed from the field due to an entrapped epiglottis. The issue affects breathing and is typically resolved with minor surgery that sidelines a horse for only three weeks or so.
The timing, though, could not have been worse for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. Omaha Beach was widely regarded as the finest of the seven 3-year-olds he had brought to Churchill Downs since his quest for a Derby triumph began in 1984.
Mandella has enjoyed the vast majority of his success with older horses that he painstakingly and masterfully develops. The Derby, though, has been a missing piece in his otherwise extraordinary resume. He admitted he was “devastated” when he realized Omaha Beach would not make the starting gate.