Normally, after the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve the Churchill Downs backstretch is abuzz with speculation about which horses will go on to the next step along the Triple Crown trail, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore.
But this year, talk about the May 18 Preakness on a damp, cool Sunday morning took a backseat to the continued dialogue about the stewards’ actions the previous day, in which Maximum Security, the 9-2 second betting choice in the Kentucky Derby, crossed the wire first over a sloppy track, but was disqualified for interference and relegated to 17th in the 19-horse field.
Longshot Country House, who finished 1 ½ lengths behind Maximum Security, was awarded the victory, with his win payoff of $132.40 the biggest in Derby history. Code of Honor was moved up from third to second as a result of the DQ.
While the decision was a hot topic on social media, with opinions generally split between whether the right or wrong call was made, there was general consensus among veteran horsemen that the regulators got it right. That group includes Bill Mott, who earned the first Kentucky Derby win in his storied Hall of Fame career when Country House was moved up to first place.
"I really believe that the call that was made yesterday shows the integrity of the sport," said Mott on Sunday morning, who also noted he didn't believe it would have been a difficult decision for stewards had it been the first race on the card and not the Kentucky Derby.
Country House, ridden by Flavien Prat, crossed the wire second – 1 ¾ lengths behind Maximum Security – and was brushed by Long Range Toddy, who was impacted along with War of Will and Bodexpress when Maximum Security veered out at the quarter pole. Running on the far outside, Country House avoided the brunt of the incident.
"It's such a critical point in the race," Mott said. "When you reach the quarter pole, particularly in a dirt race, there's no time to put the breaks on and then go again. You could see the two horses that got bothered – apart from War of Will – Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress, they didn't recover at all. Once they got hammered, they were done.
"If it happens leaving the gate, it happens in the first turn, those horses are still on the bridle. It's happened and then they regain their position and then they make their run. But once they've started to make their run leaving the three-eighths pole, which most of them probably do, I think they start putting them to the test at that point. Once they stop there it's really hard to recover. It takes a super horse to recover.
"It's just such an unusual way to have to go to the winner's circle and win a Kentucky Derby. This Kentucky Derby will be talked about for a long time. I think it will be probably up there with (jockey Bill) Shoemaker standing up at the sixteenth pole (aboard Gallant Man in 1957 and finishing second to Iron Liege). It's just one of those things it's not going to go away. But we're going to take the win. We're going to take it and hopefully we come back. Hopefully Country House comes back and runs big in the future whatever race it may be, and I guess sort of redeems himself a little bit."
Mott also had Tacitus in the Derby. Juddmonte Farms' homebred crossed the wire fourth and was placed third following the disqualification.
"Last night both horses actually, Tacitus and Country House, they were fine," Mott said. "They recovered so well and ate up right away, which is always a good sign after a hard race like that. Initially, it looks like both horses came out really well. Really pleased with the way both horses performed. Not only Country House, but Tacitus came with a very good run. He got interfered with a little bit himself. I don't think it cost him the win, but Tacitus got bothered a little bit too in the race, just had to change his course a little bit leaving the quarter pole."
Both Country House and Tacitus will stay with Mott's Churchill Downs string and assistant Kenny McCarthy at least a few days to be re-evaluated. Immediately after the two crossed the wire Saturday, Mott saw them as strong contenders for the June 8 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets. But that was before Country House was declared the winner.
"Having the Derby winner, you're pretty much forced to go into the Preakness," Mott said. "Frankly, when the horses crossed the wire, I mean I was elated. I thought our horses ran really well and being second I said, 'Well, there's no real pressure to go to the Preakness.'
"Both horses are very well suited for the Belmont, but now we got to rethink that, and certainly probably for Country House. With Tacitus I don't think it's any pressure to go to the Preakness. I think we can just wait and go to the Belmont with him and then we've got to make the decision for Country House."
Country House, owned by Mrs. J.V. Shields Jr., E.J.M. McFadden Jr., and LNJ Foxwoods, broke his maiden third time out at Gulfstream Park in January, rallying to a 3 ½-length win around two turns. He then ran second to War of Will in the Feb. 16 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford at Fair Grounds, fourth in the March 23 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, and third in the April 13 Arkansas Derby, three weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, at Oaklawn Park.
"Now we're talking about a horse that's had quite a few races. I think if you run back in the Preakness – maybe you hit the board, maybe you don't, maybe you win – but it probably compromises his chances a little bit to win the Belmont," Mott said. "That's just looking at it as a trainer and what would be normal. But the Triple Crown is not a normal situation. It never has been. I don't think they should space anything out anymore. I think the challenge of the Triple Crown is that it's three races close together and it takes a champion – hey, it takes a Justify – to win those kind of races."
Should Country House travel to Pimlico for the Preakness, Mott said he would likely ship the colt in the week of the race from Churchill Downs.
"I think the light bulb came on yesterday," Mott said of Country House, "and we've been waiting for that because I don't think he's ever figured out how to give 100% before. I think he gave 99% yesterday. It certainly looked like it was a big move forward so to speak from any of his previous races."
Mott's thoughts on the disqualification were echoed by other Kentucky Derby trainers. "They made a tough call, rather than just letting it ride," said Shug McGaughey, Code of Honor's trainer. "You always hear 'they're not going to take a horse down in that big of a race.' My initial reaction was 'nothing is going to happen,' but the longer I stood there on the track the more I thought something was going to happen.
"I saw some pictures of it on Facebook, and if those were true to everything I think they made the right call. It was tough break. To win the Derby and get that high and then go to that low in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes and to have to stand there and wait through it..."
McGaughey said owner-breeder William S. Farish would likely leave it up to the trainer on whether to contest the Preakness with Code of Honor.
"If I think this has taken its toll a little bit, then I will pull the plug and say let's point to something else," he said of the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes winner. "I've never won the Preakness and would love to win the Preakness, but I don't want to do it at the expense of the horse. He seems to be fine today. From all signals, he's still kind of young in what he does and as we go down the line he could get even better."
Despite what happened during and after the race, trainer Mark Casse said he felt lucky that War of Will was fine Sunday. Gary Barber's War of Will was running third when the interference occurred and finished seventh.
"As much as I want to win the Kentucky Derby, I feel a lucky man today because I just got him out and jogged him and he's perfect," Casse said. "The horse racing (industry) is lucky War of Will is such an athlete. Not every horse doesn't go down there. If (War of Will went) down, horse racing would have been in the worst shape ever."
"Should (Maximum Security) have come down? Absolutely positive," Casse said. "After watching it a few times, I knew they were going to take him down. It doesn't matter whether it's the Kentucky Derby or not. He put horses' lives in danger. He put jockeys' lives in danger. It's unfortunate because I don't know what (Maximum Security) shied from."
Casse said it was immaterial to the discussion of the disqualification's legitimacy that Tyler Gaffalione, War of Will's rider, did not file an objection after the race.
"I didn't really realize what happened," Casse said of his view of the race. "Tyler came back and he said 'I almost went down.' I said 'I'm not going to claim foul.' If we had finished fourth or third or second, we would have been claiming foul in an instant.
"If I claim foul on my friend and he has just had the biggest accomplishment in life and the only thing that is going to do is move me up to sixth, would you claim foul? No," he continued.
The Preakness is likely for War of Will.
"As long as he's happy and healthy we'll probably go to Baltimore," Casse said.
Todd Pletcher also said the stewards' decision was the correct call, made even tougher because it involved the biggest and most prestigious race in North America.
"To me the message that we can draw a positive from is that at the absolute biggest moment in the game, they made the toughest call," Pletcher said. "I don't envy their position. By the rulebook it's the right call. There is no question he veered out and interfered with a couple of horses."
Pletcher said Starlight Racing's Cutting Humor (10th in the Derby) and Wertheimer and Frere's 18th-place finisher Spinoff appeared to be fine Sunday morning, but the trainer was noncommittal on Preakness plans. He said the rain immediately before and during the Derby created track conditions not suitable for Spinoff.
"I was a little concerned about that earlier in the week when we galloped him over a sloppy track and I could tell he didn't seem as enthusiastic about it as Cutting Humor," Pletcher said. "We'll get back to New York and give it a week before I give any real strong consideration."–Eric Mitchell and Christine Oser