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The unprecedented disqualification of a Kentucky Derby winner, explained

Maximum Security won the race and lost the Kentucky Derby thanks to instant replay.

Maximum Security (right, in front) lost the Kentucky Derby after being disqualified on video replay.
Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

The horse that crossed the finish line first didn’t win the Kentucky Derby.

Maximum Security appeared to win the 145th running of the sport’s most famous race in two thrilling minutes. But amid all the celebration over his most exciting win yet, viewers soon learned of an objection raised against the first-place horse by second-place finisher Country House. After an agonizing half-hour wait, the news came: Maximum Security was disqualified, the first-ever apparent winner to be disqualified, and 65-to-1 long-shot Country House had “won” the Kentucky Derby.

For an already anachronistic sporting event that thrives on its fleeting thrills, this was an unbearably suspenseful, full-on bizarre way to declare a winner. It had never happened before. Racing enthusiasts pray it never happens again. But the story’s not over: Maximum Security’s owner is filing an appeal with the Kentucky racing commission to overturn the overturning of his win.

Maximum Security led almost the entire race. But on video replay, he was found to have violated the race’s interference rules, altering the paths of War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Country House with a stumble to his right. The former two horses would fade to the back of the pack in the final stretch, but Country House — one of two teams to lodge the complaint that overturned the race — had come in second out on the track.

Here is the offense:

This story has plenty on its own: a historic disqualification and a horse with historically long odds becoming the recorded champion of the Kentucky Derby. But it couldn’t escape Donald Trump, who believed the instant-replay overturn was a symptom of the deeper disease of political correctness.

There is some vague political theory here — there is a certain officiousness inherent to instant replay that Trump probably also sees in whatever he considers “political correctness” — but antipathy for instant replay crosses ideological boundaries.

The president’s fixation on culture wars is boorish and predictable, but he’s right about something: Nobody wants to see the Kentucky Derby end on instant replay.

How Maximum Security won the race and lost the Kentucky Derby

If you want to watch the whole race, it really is only two minutes (Maximum Security finished at a nice two-minute, four-second clip.) Maximum Security had been looking at 9-2 odds, putting him in the top tier of contenders according to the gamblers. He is 3 years old and had never lost a race as of Saturday.

It can’t be stressed enough that Maximum Security led almost all the way from opening gun to the finish line. But the fleeting contact with War of Will as the horses rounded the final turn was apparently enough to violate Section 12 of rule 810 KAR1:016 in the rulebook that governs the derby. From NBC Sports:

The rule calls for disqualification 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.” Stewards determined that Maximum Security interfered with the path of several horses as the field of 19 rounded the final turn in Saturday’s race.

The riders on Long Range Toddy and Country House both made objections to the stewards who are responsible for refereeing the derby. The decision was that Maximum Security had indeed interfered with the other horses. Taking a close look at the video, there was clearly some interference. Here’s a good, close look at the pivotal moment, courtesy of Deadspin:

So Maximum Security was out. Country House had won the Kentucky Derby.

The disqualified horse’s owner is trying to appeal the decision

The disqualified winner’s owner Gary West is understandably upset and plans to file an appeal with the state racing commission, though race results are apparently not subject to appeal. He had some ominous words, almost but not quite suggesting something was off about the bizarre way the race was resolved.

“If the state racing commission refuses to hear about it, I think this is something that’s big enough that the entire racing world is looking at this,” West said on NBC’s Today show. “And I think they deserve an opportunity to really know what was going on.”

As John Swenson, a veteran horse racing journalist, wrote for Vice in 2013: “Cheating is deeply woven into the fabric of horse racing.” Fixed races are the dark side of the sport’s genteel surface. So whether there is any basis to West’s implicit accusations or not, they do fit into a long and troubled history.

This is where we must mention that Country House, the declared winner of the Kentucky Derby, was a historic long shot. The horse had 65-to-1 odds when betting closed.

Country House isn’t quite the longest shot to win the Derby — that would be Donerail, ridden by jockey Roscoe Goose in 1913. But he’s toward the top of the list. Some wagers really paid off on Saturday evening.

We’ll wait to see whether anything comes of West’s appeal. For now, Country House is in the books as the winner. West says Maximum Security won’t run in the next big race in the sport, the Preakness later this month.

The debate about the Kentucky Derby is a debate about instant replay

Trump’s take on the derby was very much a “back in my day, they never would have overturned the Kentucky Derby on instant replaytake. Too much political correctness!

Never mind that the real political conversation we should be having is about dead horses on the Santa Anita Park racetrack in California. Nearly two dozen horses have died there since Christmas. Horse racing is a sport where the participants die rather frequently performing it, yet it really only captures the nation’s attention for that Saturday in May when they run the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The deaths in Santa Anita could soon force a difficult discussion for the sport, however, with local and federal investigations already underway.

But anyway, let’s meet Trump on his turf. The distaste over the derby’s resolution doesn’t really come from politics; it comes from a growing frustration even among erudite sports fans that instant replay has made sports overdetermined. Deadspin’s Gabe Fernandez was none too pleased, dismayed how instant replay had become so ubiquitous in more widely watched sports like football and baseball:

Saturday’s review was the latest example of the growing annoying trend where video replays are asked for in the hopes that the tiniest of margins fall in the challenger’s favor. It’s like when a baserunner beats the throw and steals second, only to be called out minutes later because an extreme close-up of a slow-motion replay showed their hand coming off the bag for a quarter of a second while the baseman’s glove was still on their back. While technically a correct ruling, it’s one that goes against the spirit of the rule while dragging us towards a deeper descent into a world of insanity where nanometers determine the outcomes of sporting events.

This is a longstanding debate among sports fans: How much human error should be allowed? Instant replay was a step toward pure empiricism. But it came with a certain cost to athletic grace. In the NFL, one of the league’s semifinal games was marred by a missed call in a critical play (human error), which then prompted a corresponding rule change to allow more plays to be reviewed — to an equal lament from those who see instant replay as a scourge.

“And at least an umpire or referee makes his or her in-game call quickly. Now, the wait can be excruciating,” Will Leitch wrote in 2018, making “The Case Against Instant Replay” in New York magazine.

How often is it cut and dry, when a replay makes you say, “Oh, whew, that’s an obvious call, there’s no debate whatsoever, glad replay caught that?” Not often, right? We start with uncertainty. We wait five minutes. We get more uncertainty. And we’re more pissed at the end than we were before.

Both those frustrations showed themselves on Saturday, with the real-world winner losing on a technicality after an excruciating delay. The video does show some interference on the part of Maximum Security, but was it really enough to justify taking the trophy away from a horse that had led most of the way from start to finish? Instant replay might have delivered the “correct” call, but did it ruin the fun?

For other minds, though, the fun isn’t the point — money is involved. Sports gambling is rapidly being legalized across the country, freed up by the Supreme Court, and the Derby is, of course, a major gambling event.

Betting demands the purest result, arbitrated by the cold empiricism of video replay, as ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio made the case after Saturday’s derby drama.

The availability of a vehicle for fixing problems not spotted in real time should be celebrated, not castigated. But the “get replay off my lawn” crowd has seized on Saturday’s stunning reversal as proof that the reliance on video review is ruining sport. It’s a strange hill to die on, given that it rests on the idea that bad calls are OK.

They’re not OK, especially with legalized gambling spreading quickly from coast to coast. As more and more Americans wager hard-earned money on the outcome of sporting events, the outcome must be as pure and reliable as possible.

So while Trump’s retreat to bland culture-war rhetoric is boring and predictable, the instant-replay debate he touched on is fascinating: a sentimental reverence for the art of sport, and the imperfection that allows, versus the materialism founded in the money being gambled that depends on the certainty of the results.

What kind of sports do we want to have?