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If ever horse racing needed to get out of the news, it is now.

Let it go back to being a niche sport for those who watch only one race a year, and that on the first Saturday in May. Believe me, it can't take much more publicity like it is getting in what should be a showcase month for the sport.

The just completed but still adjudicated Kentucky Derby has done nothing to calm tensions in what was already a problematic year. With the fate of the sport in California at risk after an uncommonly high number of equine deaths prompted a track closure at Santa Anita, Kentucky racing officials have turned the sport's biggest event into a "Law & Order" episode.

Nine days after Maximum Security, the first horse under the wire in Derby 145 at Churchill Downs, was disqualified and placed 17th came a ruling against the horse's jockey. Luis Saez was suspended 15 days for interference, a violation that customarily would be three days and issued with little fanfare.

This was from the same panel of stewards at Churchill Downs who saw no reason to request an inquiry after what is typically a roughly run race, acting instead upon foul claims lodged by two jockeys.

Maximum Security's owners lodged an appeal with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which, Pilate-like, washed its hands of the matter. No telling where that might end up. Now, we have a Louisville attorney telling a Lexington newspaper that Saez, as his right, will appeal the stewards' ruling against himself.

No one disputes that Maximum Security, a need-the-lead type, swerved all over the place as the 19-horse Derby field neared the quarter pole. Films confirm as much and represented Exhibit A against letting Maximum Security's No. 7 stay first on the toteboard.

The stewards took more than 20 minutes to rule on what amounted to "(Flavien) Prat and (Jon) Court vs. Saez." Casual racing fans were confused by the outcome whereas anyone who goes to the track or wagers on the sport in any fashion understood the reason for the delay. Oaklawn Park announcer Vic Stauffer, himself a California steward, said the whole thing would have been resolved in about three minutes had it been "the third race on a Thursday."

Given the delay, Maximum Security's number was sure to come down. It was just a matter of how far back in the pack he should go, specifically behind every also-ran he affected.

Re the ruling against Saez, Stauffer tweets, "I wouldn't have given him a suspension. Just one point of view. I respect the KY Stewards expertise."

That said, Vic continues, "it was (in my opinion) a terrible error the stewards didn't light the inquiry sign on their own."

Allowing for conspiracy theorists in the crowd, some cited a desire to reward a horse, Country House, trained by the popular Bill Mott, a racing Hall of Famer but previous Derby non-winner. Others suggested the DQ must have had something to do with gambling in that Maximum Security was the post-time favorite. Both arguments are as specious as that Yoko Ono alone caused the breakup of the Beatles.

Mott, a disciple of the late Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, wants to win the Derby as much as anyone but not in a manner that would paint the sport in a negative light. Country House joins Forward Pass (1968, following Dancer's Image's drug-related DQ) in the wing of Derby horses who did not cross the finish line first at Churchill Downs. That is not the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. Unfortunate, to be sure, but also the nature of things, Country House benefiting most from an ontrack incident that he was affected less than some horses behind him.

As to who was riding which horse for whom, it matters not. Said Stauffer: "During an inquiry a steward doesn't even look at the jockeys. Only the horses."

As for the gambling aspects, let Candice Curtis, email marketing manager for Louisville-based Horse Racing Nation and graduate of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program, clear up some gray areas:

"The biggest misconception about pari-mutuel betting is that the racetrack wants the horses to go off at certain odds. The track gets its 'take' when the bet is placed, so they do not care what the ultimate payouts are. ... The track is just 'holding' the money until the race is over and then it uses its technology to pay off everyone fairly."

Let no one infer here that racing would be better off if Maximum Security's number had stayed up. In this space last week, it was pointed out that if War of Will, for one, had not stayed upright at the head of the stretch, a chain-reaction spill might have resulted, possibly resulting in the deaths of one or more horses, that might have sparked cries to outlaw the sport. The argument that the winner's number should stay up merely to protect the gambler is, sorry to say, illogical. It's called gambling for a reason, and caveat emptor.

What I am saying is that had the stewards merely flashed the inquiry light after the race, a lot of unnecessary swiping in the press and on social media might have been avoided. For those of us who cover racing, the picture might have been clearer had the Equibase footnote noted that two jockeys, Prat on Country House and Court on 17th-place finisher Long Range Toddy, claimed foul against the winner.

As for Saez getting 15 days, I can only say that it happened in the Run for the Roses and not in the third race on a Thursday. Louisville native Dr. Hunter S. Thompson might have envisioned this scenario when, about the 1970 renewal, he wrote "Fear and Loathing at the Kentucky Derby."

Sports on 05/15/2019

Print Headline: Horse racing needs to take a breather

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