In the middle of March, the two horses became neighbors of a kind, separated by 26 miles of central Kentucky bluegrass and hillsides, and connected by a straight stretch of I-64. Country House, the official winner of last year’s 145th Kentucky Derby, was retired to a postcard paddock at his owners’ Blackwood Stables in Versailles, not far from Keeneland Race Course, northwest of Lexington. A regal chestnut, nearly 17 hands high and with a sweet disposition, he gambols about in the morning and sometimes snuggles with kids at the fence line. Maximum Security, the horse who crossed the finish line first in that same race, was laid up in scandal (not his fault) at Dell Ridge Farm, on the other side of the city, awaiting the resumption of his racing career. He will return with a new trainer writing his workouts and a giant asterisk on his back (also not his fault).
It has been nearly a year since the one and only time Country House and Maximum Security competed in the same horse race. They were central to, but not alone in, producing an historic outcome – the first disqualification of a Derby winner for an on-track violation in the history of a race that has been run continuously (so far) since 10 years after the end of the Civil War. It was a moment that was both seemingly correctly adjudicated by the stewards, and yet deeply unsatisfying at the same time. It also remains technically in the hands of the legal system, unresolved, according to the letter of the law, while climbing a ladder of litigatory Hail Marys that could eventually land in the United States Supreme Court sometime long after the public has lost its zeal for an imprimatur. It is a race that ended in three ticks more than two minutes, yet continues today, out of sight.
This story commemorates the one-year anniversary of that event. It was also intended to coincide with the running of this year’s Derby, on Saturday at Churchill Downs. But that is not happening.
The 146th Derby is among the many sporting events postponed, due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is currently scheduled to take place, with spectators, on Saturday, Sept. 5, but like all other rescheduled events, that is nothing if not aspirational. Country House will remain the most recent Kentucky Derby winner for at least four more months. Maximum Security will race again as the once-sympathetic – but now less so – 17th-place finisher. They will be as tethered in racing history as Affirmed and Alydar.
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In the 51 weeks that have passed since last year’s Derby, little has changed, and yet much has changed. Jockeys and trainers whose horses were ruled to have been disadvantaged by Maximum Security have only hardened their positions. Maximum Security’s trainer is under federal indictment for drugging horses – including Maximum Security, although not specifically in the Derby – and is not talking publicly about the Derby or anything else; his jockey is leading the nation in victories, but also not talking about last year. The horse’s owner has sued to reclaim victory; that suit was dismissed, and has been appealed, which is why the stewards who disqualified Maximum Security have continued to decline all interview requests, as they did on the day of the race. Country House never ran another race, the first Derby winner in 23 years and only the second in 93 years to be retired without racing again.
The racing public continues to debate the race outcome and the issues of procedure and transparency that arose in its wake. It all remains as messy as the rain-soaked quagmire on which last year’s Derby was run, recorded but not welcomed, vaguely incomplete.
Even under the umbrella of tradition and sameness – the hats, the cigars, the mint julips, the lavish parties, the infield, the red carpet, “Riders Up!” and My Old Kentucky Home – every Derby has its own rhythm, a drumbeat that usually revolves around weather forecasts and betting favorites. In 2019, Derby Week unfolded under an ominous threat of late afternoon rain on race day (something that’s also become a tradition) and, after two Triple Crown winners in the previous four years (American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018), the distinct lack of a potential super horse. This made for lively banter.
Among the favorites would be three horses trained by Bob Baffert, who had trained both Pharoah and Justify; Wood Memorial prep winner Tacitus, trained by Bill Mott; and Maximum Security, about whom there was a mix of intrigue and suspicion of the type that keeps the backstretch humming for days. Maximum Security had impressively won the Florida Derby prep race, a terrific score for any three-year-old, but remarkable for a horse that just three months earlier had run for a claiming tag in a six-and-a-half-furlong race at Gulfstream Park and could have been taken from trainer Jason Servis (and owners Gary and Mary West, longtime thoroughbred players who had never won the Derby) for just $16,000. “But nobody did,” said Servis one morning during Derby week. “I said, ‘Phew.’ ”
Maximum Security went on to win two more races of escalating quality before winning the Florida Derby by three-and-a-half lengths, wire to wire. The subtext of all this was that Servis had become known in the game as a trainer who makes slow horses fast and fast horses faster. And that raises eyebrows. In 2019, his horses won 29 percent of their starts, higher than any other major trainer. That raises eyebrows, too. Ten months down the road, the Feds would validate all these suspicions, but in Derby week they were just juicy rumors spun into pre-race content.
Then there was Country House, also trained by Mott. From six career starts, he had won just a single race, as a maiden. He was second, fourth and third in three Derby preps, respectable but unthreatening, a gorgeous, late-running grinder with modest talent. Three days before the Derby, I interviewed Mott outside his Churchill Downs barn. “Tacitus is my best chance to win,” he said. “Country House needs some things to happen.”
*This is exactly the place in my post-race story last May 4 for Sports Illustrated, where I wrote: Some things indeed happened. I will stand by that and embrace plagiarizing myself. Some things happened.
Rain began falling 90 minutes before the Derby, turning the track quickly from fast to good to muddy to sloppy to sealed. Saez rode Maximum Security easily from the seven-hole to the front, his preferred position. There he stayed, around the harrowing first turn and down the backside, rolling through a blistering first quarter-mile in 22.31 seconds, but followed by increasingly slower fractions of 24.31, 25.88 and 26.13, Saez skillfully managing the pace.
In real time, this is what spectators saw: Maximum Security held the lead into the middle of the far turn, approaching the top of the stretch, nearing the quarter pole, horses bunched, closely. There was some rough riding, but it was almost impossible to discern, in the moment, if anything punishable might have happened. This is often the case, especially in a 20-horse rodeo like the Derby. Maximum Security fought off Code of Honor, from the inside and went powerfully to the wire in front. Country House clunked up unthreateningly in second, after a brief run at the front. Race over.
I watched the race from the saddling paddock behind the cruise ship-sized grandstand, standing next to Baffert and about 50 feet from another trainer, Mark Casse, whose horse, War of Will, had been something of a Derby Week mystery. War of Will had looked like a potential Derby favorite after two dominant prep wins, but threw in a ninth-place stinker in the Louisiana Derby, and was let go at 17-1 odds at Churchill. He came across the line eighth in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but would soon thereafter become central to a new narrative.
A minute or two after Maximum Security crossed the line, I snagged an innocuous quote from Baffert and hustled down the tunnel to the finish line area. By the time I reached the sloppy track, the OBJECTION sign had been illuminated on the infield tote board and the giant screen on the backstretch. The order of finish was topped with the word UNOFFICIAL. The crowd noise was set on gasp, followed by murmur. When the inquiry light is engaged, it means that either the stewards, three officials who mete out justice from a perch high above the track, had seen something untoward; or that one or more jockeys had lodged objections against other riders or asked for a general review of the race.
The historical significance: Never in 144 runnings of the Derby had a winning horse come down for an on-track infraction. (Dancer’s Image had been disqualified after crossing the line first in the 1968 Derby, when a post-race drug test found a banned substance in his system).
First I saw jockey Jon Court, at 58 the oldest rider in Derby history, on the phone with the stewards. Court had ridden 55-1 shot Long Range Toddy, who passed the wire 17th. I had no idea how Long Range Toddy might have figured into any inquiry, but it was clear that Court had talked to the stewards “It got pretty gnarly out there,” said Court after hanging up the phone, and then he hustled up the tunnel toward the jockeys’ quarters.
Jockey Flavien Prat, who had ridden Country House to his second place finish, took the phone from Court and also talked to the stewards. Unlike Court, Prat stayed on the track to await a decision, because if Maximum Security were to be – in the parlance of the game – taken down, Prat and Country House would be the winners. Prat said then: “When I was coming around the turn, he [Maximum Security] pushed me sideways.” said Prat. “He kind of bumped me.” (Prat has since softened his stance further; keep reading).
Seconds later Casse walked up the tunnel with War of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, talking animatedly to each other. I didn’t catch up to the scrum to get a comment, but I noted that Gaffalione didn’t stop at the phone, which would become another plot point.
Roughly as all this was unfolding, chaotically, in the slop, with a veil of fog and light drizzle falling intermittently, NBC’s Donna Brothers caught up to Maximum Security on the backside and interviewed Saez. Two things Saez said to Brothers:
When we came to the stretch, he started getting a little bit scared … a lot of people screaming …
He’s a baby, you know, he’s just learning, but then I grab and I control him … he’s a real fighter.
This was the first public implication that something happened. And Saez knew it. The details were unclear. Saez brought Maximum Security back to the front side of the track, dismounted, and, like Court and Prat, pled his case to the stewards. Like Prat, he stayed on the track.
And then we all waited. Servis and Saez stood in the ankle-deep sludge near the inside rail. Mott stood near a pile of manure in the mouth of the tunnel, and Prat with Guinness McFadden, one of Country House’s owners.
Mott said this, forcefully: “I will say this: If this was a maiden claimer on a weekday, that horse [Maximum Security] would come down. It’s the Kentucky Derby, but it’s not supposed to matter.”
And Servis, this, less convincingly: “I don’t think my horse did anything to affect the outcome of the race.”
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The moment weighed more heavily as time passed. The word surreal was tossed about that night, and on many days since.
On the massive video screen that looms over the Churchill backstretch, replays unspooled on a continuous loop. One head-on angle showed Maximum Security darting sharply to his right approaching the quarter pole, initiating a chain reaction in which War of Will stumbled and nearly fell before crashing into Long Range Toddy, who in turn bounced off Bodexpress, who then brushed against Country House. It was a damning angle. The announcement came at 7:15, Eastern Daylight Time: Maximum Security had been disqualified and placed 17th, behind all the horses that were stacked up in the incident. Country House was declared the winner of the Derby. The crowd collectively gasped again, and then a significant portion of it booed, because Maximum Security had the 9-2 second betting choice (behind Baffert’s Improbable at 4-1) and had taken millions in bets.
In all, 22 minutes would pass from the time Maximum Security passed under the finish wire until a resolution was announced.
Later, chief steward Barbara Borden would read a 106-word statement explaining the decision. The most important part: “We determined that the seven horse (Maximum Security) drifted out and impacted the progress of number one (War of Will), in turn, interfering with the 18 (Long Range Toddy) and 21 (Bodexpress, the longest shot in the field at 71-1). Those horses were all affected, we thought, by the interference. Therefore, we unanimously determined to disqualify number seven (Maximum Security) and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.”
All of this left Country House with a blanket of roses draped across his withers and the racing world in shock.
During interviews conducted in April of this year, several of the key figures in last year’s Derby reflected on the events of the day. Notably, several others did not. Servis did not respond to text and voice messages and his lawyer did not respond to an email; this is unsurprising considering that Servis was one of two prominent trainers (Jorge Navarro was the other) and 27 people in all, charged by federal authorities with acquiring and administering illegal substances. Servis allegedly used them on nearly all of his horses, including Maximum Security (who tested clean after the 2019 Kentucky Derby). More on this later.
Saez, who leads all North American riders in 2020 with 112 victories, also declined to be interviewed. Kiaran McLaughlin, a longtime trainer who became Saez’s agent on April 1, said Saez is still contesting a 15-day suspension related to last year’s Derby and is also involved in owner Gary West’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the stewards’ decision, which was unambiguously dismissed last November in U.S. District Court, but has been appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio. “He can’t talk about this with the lawsuits and the suspension,” said McLaughlin. “He’s also very private and quiet.”
West also declined to be interviewed, because he has filed a lawsuit. He said in a text message: “No one will know a thing until the Sixth Circuit makes a ruling, which under the national [pandemic] crisis circumstances… no one has any idea when that will be. Because of that litigation, I’m unable to visit with you at this time.”
The three stewards, who did not take questions on Derby night, also did not respond to interview requests and a spokesperson cited ongoing litigation. A person familiar with the situation said, “They want to talk. They want very much to talk. But they’re not being allowed to, because of the lawsuit. Anything they say becomes testimony.”
Thus, one question will remain unanswered: Why did the stewards not illuminate the INQUIRY light on their own, which might have softened the public’s response to the disqualification, and insulated jockeys – Prat, in particular – from criticism for claiming foul? Also, the stewards might have better explained to the public why Country House, a horse not terribly affected by the bumping and who would never have caught Maximum Security, was made the winner of the most important race in America. The answer: Under U.S. rules, stewards do not attempt to determine what might have happened, only what did happen. Maximum Security and Saez interfered with other horses and were deservedly disqualified. Country House, who finished second, was promoted to first. Rules were followed and uncomfortable decisions were made. But many were confused, especially once-a-year racing fans. An explanation would have helped.
Several others at the center of last year’s drama were not reticent to speak. Their words:
Mark Casse (War of Will’s trainer): “Did I see the incident in real time? Oh yeah. I said a bad word on camera. Starts with `s.’ I saw another horse come over and bother us. The horse veered out and it took my breath away. I thought my horse and Tyler were going down.”
Bill Mott (Country House’s trainer): “I was in the third floor clubhouse, looking right down on where the incident happened. But I was looking through binoculars at both of my horses. Things happen in the blink of an eye. I didn’t really see anything at race speed.”
Tyler Gaffalione (War of Will’s jockey): “Going down the backside, I was right behind Maximum Security. My horse was taking a nice hold. He was giving me every indication that I had a lot of horse left.”
Mark Casse: “You need to see these screenshots.” [Casse sends me a series of still photos taken from NBC’s broadcast]. “Way before the actual incident, in the middle of the turn, Luis Saez looks back and sees Tyler and slides over.” [Note: This was a very subtle move]. “He actually bothers us twice. Luis rides for me. I like him. But he gives horses their head and he doesn’t have control over them. They don’t go in a straight line. I don’t think he’s quite as bad as he used to be, but he does give them their head. That’s what I meant after the race when I said for Tyler it was like following a drunk driver.”
Tyler Gaffalione: “At the three-and-a-half furlong pole [late in the turn], I saw Long Range Toddy outside me, kind of stopping like he was getting tired. And Maximum Security took a step inside when he changed to his right lead. So I saw that opening and it’s the Kentucky Derby, so I put my horse in there.”
Jon Court (Long Range Toddy’s jockey): “I was in the best position I’ve ever been in riding in the Derby. I was watching Luis and I knew Tyler was somewhere inside me. Chris Landeros (Bodexpress) was on my outside hip and Prat was further out. I saw Tyler and he looked like he was trying to make a move and get the jump on Luis. I yelled something to Tyler, like `Whoa, whoa, whoa.. easy, easy, not yet.’ And then all of a sudden, I just got crushed.”
Tyler Gaffalione: “[Maximum Security] started drifting. I tried to move outside to get away from him and then he just completely came over in front of us. It was weird, because when he started to drift over, I looked outside to see who was there, and then when I looked back, I was so close to Maximum Security’s hind quarters, my horse’s front legs went right between his hind legs. I was just waiting to go down.”
Bill Mott: “Just amazing to me that War of Will didn’t go down. I thought Tyler Gaffalione was riding the perfect race and it was really an act of God that he kept War of Will on his feet.”
Tyler Gaffalione: “That was all the horse. Such an incredible athlete.”
Jon Court: “My horse is small. He did not recover from the incident. But Tyler had no choice but to run into me. I like Luis Saez, he’s a real nice guy. He was race riding. But what he did was careless. If Tyler’s horse went down, hoo boy, there were a lot of horses behind him. It would have been tragic. There had to be consequences.”
Bill Mott: “I think Luis is a nice kid. He’s a gentleman. And he’s a very clever rider, and a very aggressive rider and he knows where he is on the racetrack at all times. In my opinion, on race day, he intended to come out, maybe one path, crowd everybody a little bit, and then drop back, which is sort of normal race-riding. I think the horse overreacted to his command. I don’t think Luis wanted this to happen. I think he looked back, saw Tyler Gaffalione on his heels and came out farther than he expected. That’s my personal take.”
I noted to Mott that some observers had blamed Gaffalione for pushing up too close behind Saez and Maximum Security. “I saw those comments,” says Mott. “And it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It has to be somebody with a biased position or an untrained eye. Maximum Security absolutely caused the whole thing.” [Mott has a “biased position.” He won the Kentucky Derby. That doesn’t make him wrong. Or right.]
Two other notes here: There was widespread speculation – impossible to prove or disprove – that Maximum Security veered sideways because he was jumping over a puddle or shying from a camera flash on the infield. Either is possible, but neither absolves the rider of his responsibility to keep a straight path. Further, after the bumping incident, Saez veered sharply back to his left, cutting off Code of Honor and jockey John Velazquez, who were advancing through a wide hole on the rail after Maximum Security veered out. Velazquez did not claim foul.
Flavien Prat (Country House’s jockey): [The 2019 Kentucky Derby was the first time Prat had sat on Country House. Prat had noted that Country House normally dropped back and made a late run. But in the Derby, from the No. 20 post position, Country House ran himself into contention immediately and stayed there]. “He broke sharp and put himself in the race on his own. I don’t know. Maybe he liked the slop. I got outside at the three-eighths pole and I started to think about winning. Then coming out of the turn, I saw movement on the inside and we got bumped. I don’t know if it cost me the race. But we got bumped.”
Bill Mott: “I’m not going to say we got bothered. We didn’t. But we were in the race. Mark Casse’s horse had the best chance and took the worst of the incident.”
Mark Casse: “I took flack because I didn’t tell Tyler to claim foul. We didn’t claim foul because we knew it meant nothing to our outcome. We moved from eighth to seventh, that’s it.”
[Worth noting here: Long Range Toddy finished 17th. Nevertheless, Court claimed foul].
Mark Casse: “I don’t like the whole system of riders claiming foul against each other. They’re friends. They sit side-by-side in the jocks’ room. Some of them ride for multiple trainers. To me it’s like having a wide receiver call pass interference. It should be up to the stewards.”
[In a sense, it is up to the stewards, as well. But the Derby stewards did not illuminate the inquiry sign at the finish of the Derby, for reasons, to repeat, that they have not yet explained.]
Flavien Prat: “I pulled my horse up around the turn and I saw there was no inquiry light. I was surprised, I thought sure there would be an inquiry. I told my outrider to call the stewards and ask them to put a hold on the race.”
I asked Prat how he felt about all this, one year later. “I feel fine. I mean, yeah, fine. Shouldn’t I? You mean because it was the Derby? If it had been a race on Wednesday, there would have been an inquiry light and they would have made the change much more quickly. It should be judged like any other race. The rules are the rules. I was in second place. I did the right thing by the connections of the horse. I think what I did was right.”
[This was a point of some contention on the day after the race, when Baffert told me, “No one ever calls an objection in the Derby. It’s always a roughly run race. Twenty-horse field. I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby. I can see by the book why [the stewards] did it. But sometimes you’ve got to take your ass-kickings with dignity.” A few days after the Derby, Baffert called out Court on the Churchill Downs backstretch. Jon Court fought back. I circled back to Baffert this spring. He has not wavered.]
Bob Baffert: “When I was walking out of the track after the Derby, I heard the announcement about an inquiry. I said, `Yeah, good luck with that.’ My horse Lookin at Lucky got totally wiped out in the first 100 yards. Are you going to disqualify somebody for that? Last year, I didn’t see anything in the last eighth of a mile.” [Baffert feels that incidents occur all the way around the track in the Derby, but only those last in the race should be flagged]. “The horse that got put up (Country House) didn’t get bothered and the best horse in the race won.”
Bill Mott: “It was an unusual result. It will be talked about for a long time. I’m just proud of the way our horse ran and it turns out we wound up with the Derby trophy.”
Three days after the Derby, Mott announced that Country House was ill with a cough and probable virus and had been pulled from training. For the first time since Grindstone in 1996, the Derby winner would be absent from the Preakness. This came one day after West announced that Maximum Security would not be at the Preakness; effectively the 2019 Triple Crown was over as a single entity. War of Will took the Preakness, and three weeks later the Casse-trained Sir Winston won the Belmont Stakes at 10-1 odds, with War of Will ninth in the 10-horse field. He was the only horse that ran all three legs of the Triple Crown.
RELATED: No Derby Saturday, but there’s a virtual Kentucky Derby party on NBC from 3-6 pm ET
Country House went to Mott’s barn at Belmont Park and then to Saratoga, where he was being pointed toward the Jim Dandy in July and the Travers in August, traditional New York summer races. Country House was bred by the family of longtime New York owner/breeder J.V. (Jerry) Shields, who died in October of 2018 at age 80; the family retains a strong connection to New York racing. Those races did not happen. Country House developed an infection in his right foreleg which, in turn, led to laminitis in his left foreleg, a common – but sometimes fatal – circumstance, related to bearing extra weight on one foot. “When the infection first surfaced,” says McFadden, Shields’s nephew, “there was hope of getting Country House back to racing as a four-year-old. But by July, things had turned dire and it looked like we might lose him.”
Surgery to address the laminitis saved Country House’s life, but also ended his racing career. In February, he was retired. He will begin a career as a stallion next spring. “I feel badly because Country House never got the chance, after the Derby, to prove what a good horse he was,” says McFadden. “I feel bad for Bill [Mott] and his team. But he’s a cool horse, a playful horse. We’re proud of him.”
Twenty-four days after Country House was retired came the bombshell announcement of the indictments against Servis, Navarro, and others. Among the allegations against Servis are that he administered illegal – and often undetectable – drugs to “virtually all” of his horses, including Maximum Security. The indictments came just nine days after Maximum Security took first place, including a $10 million winner’s share of the purse, in the Saudi Cup. It was a terrific performance that seemed to validate Maximum Security’s class. Instead, that purse has been withheld. It has all been something of a Lance Armstrong Moment for racing, an unmasking of success that seemed too good to be true. Both Servis and Navarro have pled not guilty.
The sport, meanwhile, has been both saddened by the realization that such cheating was boldly enacted and relieved that their suspicions have been publicly confirmed. “You hear a lot of rumors on the backstretch,” says Mott. “I don’t like to accuse anybody of anything, unless there’s proof. Well now there’s proof.”
Casse says, “After the Saudi Cup, I thought, well, this is a hell of a horse. Then we find, okay, maybe not. What can you say about Navarro and Servis? Training a horse is not rocket science. We all do about the same things. There’s only so much you can do. When somebody wins like those guys did, we all roll our eyes.”
Last week Gary West responded to my text request for an update on Maximum Security: “Greetings. Max is at Dell Ridge Farm in Lexington, KY and will be shipped to Baffert on the next available plane. Be safe.” It is expected that Maximum Security will race when ready, although Baffert said there is no timetable. Given that in humans the effects of PEDs have been shown to last years, and given the unforgiving nature of American fans toward cheaters, it’s likely any of Maximum Security’s future performances will be viewed with skepticism. The damage is done. (One more time: Not his fault).
And so one year later, this is where we are after the 2019 Kentucky Derby:
A Derby champion, gone in an instant and never respected.
A disqualified winner, now disgraced.
A controversial race in the mud, under a weeping spring sky, still not finished.
And the next Derby, postponed and rescheduled, wrapped in the uncertainty of our times.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.