BALTIMORE — In a controversial and unprecedented decision, the horse who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby is not the winner. Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, making Country House the winner and raising a lot of questions with the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico less than two weeks away.
Racing expert Frank Vespe says the loss of the horse that appears to be the fastest of the age group means that the Preakness could have a bigger and more evenly-matched playing field, making it a good betting race.
"This is the Maryland thoroughbred industry's moment to shine," said racing expert Frank Vespe.
Vespe runs the website The Racing Biz out of Wheaton, Md. and covers thoroughbred racing across the Mid-Atlantic. He says the disqualification is bringing a lot more attention to the sport.
"By the letter of the rules, I don't think this is the right call," said Vespe.
After an objection by two riders, stewards ruled the colt swerved out and impeded the path of several horses between the far and final turns. Country House, a 65-1 shot, was elevated to first. He says to disqualify a horse, the stewards are supposed to answer a two-part question.
"The first part is, did the horse commit a foul? And Maximum Security committed a foul. He drifted out. He impeded War of Will," said Vespe.
The second part is, did that affect the placings. Vespe believes it did not, that War of Will would not have placed in the top 5 anyway.
"Yes he had momentum at the moment he was impeded, but, if you watch the race, he regroups very quickly and stays on for another 3/16 of a mile to the eighth pole, at which point he runs out of gas and five horses came and passed him," said Vespe about War of Will.
While he may not agree with the decision, he understands why the stewards made it.
"This was a very dangerous situation because War of Will nearly clipped heels with Maximum Security. If he goes down in that spot, you have literally 16 horses behind them. You could have had a disaster the likes of which horse racing has never experienced. So as much as I wanted the money, as much as I wanted the best horse to remain the winner, and Maximum Security was clearly the best horse, you can't be upset with the stewards for making a decision that really has safety in mind," said Vespe.
Now the attention turns to the Preakness.
"A lot of times the Preakness has a very strong favorite which makes it not a great betting race," said Vespe.
But not this year. Vespe predicts a big field, a wide open race because Maximum Security's owner Gary West said his horse won't be there. West told The Associated Press by phone there is “really no need, not having an opportunity to run for the Triple Crown, to run a horse back in two weeks.”
Though shorter than the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness requires a quick turnaround that West didn't want to place on his colt with the Triple Crown off the table.
“The horse will be better off long term with the rest,” West said. “He ran a really good and a really hard race on Saturday."
"It's going to be a tremendous betting race," Vespe said of Preakness. "Losing Maximum Security takes a bite out of the quality."
The only other Derby disqualification was in 1968 and long after the race. First-place finisher Dancer's Image tested positive for a prohibited medication, and Kentucky racing officials ordered the purse money to be redistributed. Forward Pass got the winner's share. A subsequent court challenge upheld the stewards' decision.
West has said he realizes the appeals process will take ”months, if not years.“
Country House's status for the Preakness is unclear. That would mark his fourth start in eight weeks, but Vespe believes he will be there on May 18.