Shut Your Tweeter, Mr. President

Very occasionally, I drift away from baseball for a periodic interest in other sports, usually the Triple Crown thoroughbred racing series. (I still get a thrill watching Secretariat's staggering Belmont Stakes run to his Triple Crown.) This year, I got a lot more than I asked, when should-have-been Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security was disqualified for breaking the rules. And, defended by a president to whom the rules often enough feel very inconvenient.

"The Kentucky Derby decision was not a good one," Donald Trump harrumphed by way of his favorite outlet for shooting from the lip. "It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch. Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby - not even close!"

Actually, it wasn't political correctness but the rules of the race that compelled such an overturn. The best horse did break a Derby rule. Those who think thoroughbred racing is one of the least safe of sports for those running the races might find it more than a little bizarre that Maximum Security's disqualification is due to breaking a rule aimed at securing to the best extent possible the on-track safety of horses and their riders.

This is the actual written rule: If a leading horse or any other horse in a race swerves or is ridden to either side so as to interfere with, intimidate, or impede any other horse or jockey, or to cause the same result, this action shall be deemed a foul. ... If, in the opinion of the stewards, a foul alters the finish of a race, an offending horse may be disqualified by the stewards.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, to whom the Kentucky Derby is as space launches have been to Cape Canaveral, can't resist observing ironies. "A sport so often widely criticized for safety," writes the paper's Gentry Estes, "is now being widely criticized for enforcing perhaps the most significant rule in place for the safety of its horses and jockeys."

And it isn't just in the political correctness era that a stakes race winner can be disqualified. Or, where was the president in 1968, when Dancer's Image ran for and won the roses only to be stripped for a failed post-race drug test?

Where was President Tweety in 1997, when Silver Charm bumped Captain Bodgit on the stretch and ABC commentators wondered aloud whether that would provoke a similar inquiry? (It didn't.) But that bump happens often as not in a crowded race. What Maximum Security did was drift rightward at the 5/16ths pole and right into the paths of War of Will and Long Range Toddy.

Country House was declared the Derby winner after a stewards' challenge was accepted and showed that Maximum Security — whether with intent or by accident — did indeed obstruct War of Will and Long Range Toddy. Television replays showed the rightward drift clearly enough.

It wouldn't have mattered whether the Derby track was wet and sloppy or dry as the desert. But since the track was wet and sloppy, I'm not entirely convinced that the race was all that beautiful to watch. Mud-spattered horses and their equally muddied jockeys are about as beautiful as a train-wreck. But still.

It's true that Maximum Security led the race from the gate to the wire. Well, it's also true that the best team in baseball doesn't always get to win the World Series. (Sometimes, the best team in baseball doesn't even get to the World Series. Just ask the 2001 Mariners, beaten in that year's American League Championship Series.)

But the sport has specified rules that can strip a winner of a title if the winner's been determined to break them. And as one of the people involved in the race observed, in any lesser race than the Derby the same rule violation would disqualify a race winner with far less time for review. "They don't take many horses down in the Kentucky Derby," said Country House trainer Bill Mott while the stewards conducted their review. "If it was a maiden $10,000 on a Thursday, it would be a no-brainer. They don't want the controversy, I'm sure, but you're supposed to keep a straight line."

And I have a very hard time saying that a son of 2010 Preakness Stakes winner Lookin' at Lucky, which is who Country House is, is an "undeserved" winner for placing in the original finish. He's known in the racing communities as a horse who ramps it up late in his races, as many horses do, and he finished three lengths ahead of show finisher Code of Honor. It's no less rare for a late-breaking horse to impact or win a race than it is for baseball players to have far more powerful second than first halves of seasons. Nobody accuses such players of being less than the best for it. And Country House was right at the pace on the backstretch and into the fateful turn.

Funny thing. If you ask War of Will jockey Tyler Gaffalione, he thought his mount had a clean shot at winning the Derby. "I checked pretty hard" when Maximum Security veered into his horse.

"War of Will was plainly impeded, was closing on Maximum Security, and may have lost as many as four or five lengths in the process," says the Journal. "Long Range Toddy may also have lost ground in the scrum. [Chief steward Barbara] Borden also cited Bodexpress as a victim of Maximum Security's move."

Nobody says Country House was quite as good as Maximum Security, and the Courier-Journal says that's almost not the point. "That argument has some merit, too, provided you can dismiss the other horses as collateral damage," wrote the paper's Tim Sullivan.

And it wasn't as though the three stewards charged with the review did it in a snap or even a small flash. They deliberated almost 22 minutes. Sullivan says that "speaks to the Derby's significance and to the availability of multiple camera angles.

"This was not a decision to be made lightly or to be unduly influenced by the importance of the race," he continues. "Just as fouls should be called the same way in the last minute of a basketball game as in the first, racing rules should be enforced regardless of the track, its traditions, the purse or the audience."

It would have been different if Maximum Security was driven externally into impeding War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress, but he wasn't. Watch the replays. You, too, Mr. President. Shut your tweeter for long enough. Now try to tell yourself Maximum Security should have given a pass because he was "the best."

There were (and still are, though their ranks dwindle by the year) those who thought Pete Rose should have been given a pass from breaking baseball's written rules because they thought he was "the best" at his business, too. How did that work out for him?

Comments and Conversation

May 19, 2019

Anthony Brancato:

But horse racing has an unwritten rule (and you thought that only baseball had those) which states that horses are to be disqualified only if they cost the victim(s) a placing for which a share of the purse is paid out. Only the top five finishers in the Derby receive any purse money.

If horse racing was like golf, where every place means something money-wise, then Maximum Security should have been disqualified. And for the record, I am personally opposed to this “unwritten rule”: In my view, any foul should result in a disqualification, regardless of the placings involved (and in Australia they carry it one step further: They disqualify horses for failure to maintain a straight course, even if no foul occurred).

As for the best team in baseball not getting to the World Series: The Reds were the best team in baseball in 1981 - and they didn’t even make the playoffs!

And be honest: Did you ever criticize Donald Trump’s predecessor for sharing his NCAA basketball brackets every year? Even once?

July 6, 2020

Jeff Kallman:

There is a difference between one questionable president merely sharing his NCAA basketball brackets and another questionable president downright demanding a Kentucky Derby decision’s overturn on grounds of “political correctness” without comprehending the rule that prompted the disqualification. Presidents have mused aloud about particular sports tournaments for a very long time. Not until Trump can I remember any president demanding a change in the outcome on the public record.

As for the 1981 Reds, you’re preaching to the choir here. Had things been more sane in the postseason planning that season to make up for the mid-season strike, bearing in mind that division series didn’t become standard until the 1990s, the NLCS would have been the Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals and the ALCS would have been the Milwaukee Brewers against the Oakland Athletics.

(I’d have replied sooner, but I hadn’t even seen your comment until today.)

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