“All the long, lazy mornings / In pastures of green / The sun on your withers / The wind in your mane / Could never prepare you / For what lies ahead” —Dan Fogelberg “Run for the Roses”
It’s really not possible to write a column this week without writing about the Kentucky Derby. I’ll be shocked if every columnist in Kentucky doesn’t at least touch on it. In fact, I think you can be assured that if you read a column by a Kentuckian this week that doesn’t reference Saturday’s Run for the Roses at all, that column has been pre-filed, probably because the columnist actually attended Saturday’s festivities and is still recovering from the hangover.
In fact, this year’s recovery is going to take us all a lot longer than usual.
On the off-chance that you are only just waking from a nap of several days or have been held captive in a media-free basement for the past week, I’ll recap.
The facts are these: Maximum Security, the Derby horse with the best odds, committed an infraction on the track during his wire-to-wire victory that caused him to be disqualified.
That’s it. That’s what happened.
The rest is just drama.
Personally, I don’t think the jockey did it on purpose, although it certainly aided him in reaching the finish line first. He claims the horse spooked coming into the stretch, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt because it’s an infraction either way, so it doesn’t matter.
By swinging through multiple lanes, the horse essentially fended off any horse threatening to pass on the outside (where it doesn’t look like there was much of a threat really) and then by overcorrecting, crowded into the rail the only horse that really was a threat to his victory, Code of Honor, the irony of whose name appearing in this story is one of those things the universe does that you could never get away with in fiction because it would seem contrived.
This is an infraction in horse racing, and it is not a minor infraction. Horses impeding the progress of other horses is an infraction that gets horses killed on the track, and if you think this Derby was disheartening, go back and watch the super slow motion replay where War of Will’s front hooves are visible between Maximum Security’s rear hooves and try to imagine how much more disheartening it would have been had War of Will not been as steady and agile as he is. Because if he weren’t, we would have seen horses die on the track on Saturday.
I hope we can all agree that that would have been much, much worse.
Now, I understand that the Derby tends to be watched (and romanticized) by many, many people who don’t regularly follow horse racing, some of whom tend to see it as NASCAR on horses, and impeding other drivers is strategic in car racing. So that’s where some of the confusion comes in. Kind of like it’s okay to tackle in football, but less so in basketball, depending on which conference you play in.
But once you understand that, the decision is pretty clear.
It’s the sort of thing that happens day after day in sports of all kinds, even when the foul is unintentional. Hours before the Derby, I saw a Yankee relief pitcher balk on the mound because he got a spike stuck in the dirt, which pulled him up short. It was completely unintentional. It was also still a balk.
I’ve seen defenders on the football field get a hand tangled in an opponent’s facemask while going for a perfectly clean tackle. Still a facemask; still a penalty. In fact, it’s a very stiff penalty, not so much because it confers unfair advantage as because it is dangerous, and the rules of the sport favor protecting the contenders from serious injury or death, and I have always thought that was something we mutually agreed on.
Now, Maximum Security’s defenders (and there are a shocking number) are calling him the best 3-year-old in the country. I don’t know much about handicapping, but it seems strange to me to make such a claim when he wouldn’t have even been the odds-on favorite if Omaha Beach hadn’t been scratched.
These objections happen daily in horse racing. This is not an obscure rule. Yet when the Derby decision was handed down, social media erupted with cries of “Stunned!”
What’s stunning is that it happened on such a crowded and sloppy track, and none of the horses died. What’s stunning is that a disqualification for an on-track infraction has never happened in the Derby before.
And I have a theory about that. (Didn’t you just know that I would?)
It’s never happened before because of a pervasive culture of silent stoicism that discourages speaking out when the stakes are high and the world is watching.
As Hall-of Fame trainer Bob Baffert told “Sports Illustrated” this weekend, “I can see by the book why they did it. But sometimes you’ve got to take your a**-kickings with dignity.”
Except there is no dignity in being cheated. The very suggestion that there might be is a lie perpetuated by cheaters so that their victims don’t kick up a fuss. This allows them to go right on cheating with the tacit approval of their victims.
I sincerely wish it had never happened, that the race had been clean and just as beautiful as it looked in real time. A wire-to-wire Derby winner is a rarity. Even Secretariat didn’t do it. (Of course, it is easier if you’re blocking the passing lanes.) The horse had a great story. The jockey had a great story, as did the trainer and the owners. It’s a shame.
But a little bit of me is also proud. Faced with a blindingly tough call, one that they knew would be unpopular, the stewards made the right one. And that happened in Kentucky.
And that’s a good story too. Because I can’t be the only one to notice that when they handed down that decision, they also, in the process, in one of those weird things the universe does that you could never get away with in fiction, elevated Code of Honor.
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