What a muddle, this 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.
This $3-million race will be forever known for its rough corners, and the thoughts of what could have been, and the catastrophe that was avoided. Were it not for the athleticism of War of Will, this Derby could have been the most grievous in history.
“We were inches from maybe seeing the biggest disaster in horse racing history,” said War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse. “That’s how close it was.”
At the end of the sloppy trip, Maximum Security finished first with clean silks on the back of Luis Saez, who felt (at first) he was living the dream. But there was that little matter of Maximum Security veering out a few paths at the 5/16ths pole, perhaps startled by the roar of 150,000 people as the horses rounded the final turn. It was not such a little matter.
Maximum Security, who won by 1 ¾ lengths, bolted into the paths of War of Will, directly to his right, also affecting the progress of Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. The eventual winner (by disqualification) Country House, was outside of all that, feeling the scramble but little impacted by it.
The horse that took the brunt of it all was War of Will, trained by 10-time leading Canadian trainer Mark Casse. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione didn’t lodge an objection, however, because Casse didn’t believe they would gain much: they finished eighth, only 4 ½ lengths back from victory, but a disqualification could only move them up to seventh. Besides, isn’t it up to sharp-eyed stewards to lodge an inquiry? They didn’t. There were objections from two other jockeys, Flavien Prat (Country House) and Jon Court (Long Range Toddy).
After almost 22 minutes, a panel of stewards unanimously disqualified Maximum Security to 17th place (among 19) behind the affected horse that had finished worst: Long Range Toddy. It was the first disqualification of a Kentucky Derby winner over a race foul in the race’s long history. Already there is a storm of opinion: Maximum Security was robbed! The stewards got it wrong! The best horse won! It didn’t affect the outcome of the race!
From his rail post, War of Will had no option other than to run, hemmed in on the rail throughout the 1 ¼-mile race.
“There were probably positives and negatives to [having the rail position],” Casse said. “He broke well, so that wasn’t a problem. The inside is always, especially when it rains at Churchill Downs, a good place to be. So that was okay.
“We saved ground and we were down inside,” Casse said. “But it hurt us some down the backside, because I think if Tyler could have got a little room to go, War of Will was really wanting to go yesterday. He was very strong during throughout the race, and I think if he had been to the outside, Tyler would probably have gone to the lead at the half-mile pole and said: “Well catch me if you can.”
But he couldn’t get out. Videos of the race showed how hard Gaffalione had to work to throttle War of Will’s will and at one point, was right on the heels of pacesetter Maximum Security.
As soon as Gaffalione saw a hole around the final turn, he aimed War of Will at it. “He didn’t want to take a chance of getting caught on the rail for the entire stretch drive,” Casse said. “He angled out and then of course, the horse bolted.”
Video shows War of Will’s left front leg striking Maximum Security’s legs twice during that unexpected bolt. Had Gaffalione waited a couple of seconds before he moved, Maximum Security’s bolting would have opened up a huge opening for him on the rail. War of Will could have taken it (as Code of Honor did) and he would have had an advantage, beating everyone else to the punch. But nobody has a crystal ball.
Code of Honor did dart through the hole and ended up third, second after the disqualification. But when Maximum Security meandered back to the inside, he crowded Code of Honor, too.
The head-on shot is most revealing, showing just how dramatic Maximum Security’s sideways move was. As the field straightened out for the stretch drive, Maximum Security drifted out again in front of War of Will.
War of Will’s path was set before Maximum Security took it away. And Maximum Security’s sudden dive was extremely dangerous. The previous day, a filly fell at the start of the Kentucky Oaks after being squeezed strides out of the starting gate, clipping heels with horses in front of her. War of Will could have fallen, too. And there were 16 horses behind him at the 5/16th pole in the Kentucky Derby.
“It would have been a matter of how many horses went down and how bad everybody got hurt,” Casse said. “It would have been disastrous.
“So after the race, yes, I was disappointed, but just happy that nobody got hurt.”
Casse is certain that the incident stopped War of Will’s momentum. He was just launching his bid when it happened. “[Maximum Security] kind of stopped the momentum of a few horses,” Casse said. “Then he darted back and got a head start on them again. “
There is no telling where War of Will could have finished, had he not been impeded. Perhaps the top three, Casse mused. “There is no question that the horse should have come down,” Casse said. “I just don’t understand [people who say the stewards’ decision was wrong.] To me this was a no-brainer.
“Did War of Will need to fall for them to take [Maximum Security] down?”
Casse said he feels badly for the winning connections. “It’s not the way Bill Mott wanted to win his first Derby,” he said. “And I feel bad for Gary Barber [owner of War of Will] because these opportunities don’t come along very often. My opinion is that we kind of got knocked out right when we were making our run. Who’s to say who would have won? I know we would have been a lot closer.”
The 58-year-old trainer is just grateful that War of Will came back to the barn in one piece, none the worse for wear. He did suffer a couple of little knicks on his right front leg. After he stretched his legs Sunday morning on the track, the horse was the picture of health. “He’s fine,” Casse said. “He’s jumping around. To him it’s a big game.”
Casse will take a look to see how War of Will trains before he commits to the Preakness, but he’s certainly heading in that direction. Maximum Security will not and court challenges seem to be in the offing. (The Kentucky Racing Commission denied an appeal by Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, who maintains that the disqualification is “not supported by substantial evidence.”)
When the last raindrop had fallen on Churchill Downs, it was clear that this Kentucky Derby hadn’t answered any questions about what 3-year-old reigned supreme. The Preakness may not either.