LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The fastest two minutes in sports lasted another 22 minutes on Saturday evening at Churchill Downs in a wild and crazy finish to the 145th running of the $3 million Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.
In a scene that became more surreal by the moment, Country House’s jockey Flavien Prat stood under the Twin Spires next to the jockey scale awaiting a steward’s decision that would change his life.
The longer time passed, the more he shifted his weight from one muddy boot to the other, watching the replay being played on the mammoth Churchill Downs video board.
When inquiries last as long as this one did, it usually indicates a change is in the works inside the steward’s booth. A rain-soaked crowd of 150,729, held its collective breath.
NBC announcer Laffit Pincay, Jr. looked over to the California-based jockey, winked at him and mouthed to Prat “They’re going to take him down.” Pincay, Jr.’s father was a Hall of Fame jockey so he has seen his share of inquiries.
Prat suddenly became still when the video screen cleared the unofficial results and the announcement was about to be made.
A hush went over the historic racetrack awaiting the decision to be communicated by track announcer Travis Stone.
For the first time in the storied history of the Kentucky Derby, the winner was disqualified and 65-1 Country House was moved up from second and placed first.
Prat took off his jockey helmet and looked skyward with a beaming smile.
“It’s amazing, I never thought I could win the Derby,” Prat exclaimed to The News.
It was the first claim of foul in the Kentucky Derby since 2001, when John Velazquez made a claim of foul against Monarchos, a claim that did not hold up.
A few feet away from Prat, Country House trainer Bill Mott had been holding court with a media scrum insisting that there was no way that the stewards were going to disqualify the post time favorite.
“If this were a maiden claimer on a Thursday afternoon, that horse would come down,” Mott lectured moments before learning he would win his first ever Kentucky Derby, albeit by disqualification.
It was not the way Mott wanted to win his first Kentucky Derby, but by the way he was lobbying before the decision, he certainly won’t be giving the trophy back on Sunday.
As happy as the Country House connections were at the decision, the disappointment was evident in the Maximum Security camp.
Owner Gary West looked like he had just seen a ghost when approached in the suites behind the winner’s circle after the decision was announced. “I didn’t see what happened, it was hard to see it on the big screen,” said West. “I knew after 15 minutes that he was going to come down. I didn’t know for sure, but I had a pretty good inclination.”
“I’m hoping it was something really major to take the horse down,” said West. “I’d be really disappointed in the stewards if it was a minor infraction in a race like this.”
Maximum Security trainer Jason Servis provided his side of the story. “The only thing I saw was that he ducked out a little, with the big crowd it is hard to say if he saw something and got scared,” said Servis. “I didn’t really get to see it that well, from what I did see I thought he was the best horse today.”
The infraction occurred as the horses were on the far turn approaching the quarter pole.
Maximum Security, who at that juncture of the race had led from the start after setting solid early fractions. The son of New Year’s Day veered out on the turn, pushing both War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress out into a four-wide Country House. At that point, Bodexpress checked severely and backed up.
Long Range Toddy made slight contact with Country House giving Prat and Long Range Toddy jockey Jon Court reason to make claims of foul after the race. Prat confirmed in the post race press conference that the bump caused him to lose momentum as he passed the quarter pole.
The winning mutuel of $132.40 was the second largest in history, only behind Donerail in 1913 who paid $184.90. The payout exceeded 50-1 Mine That Bird’s payout of $103.20, ten years ago.
Code of Honor was placed second with the disqualification at odds of 14-1 and paid $15.20 to place and $9.80 to show. Tacitus finished third and paid $5.60 to show.
Country House will now move on to the Preakness in Baltimore in two weeks, the only remaining 3-year-old remaining with a shot at completing racing’s Triple Crown. His sire, Lookin at Lucky won the Preakness in 2010 after suffering a nightmare trip in that year’s Derby.
Maybe the racing gods were on his side providing a mulligan to his son after his daddy drew the dreaded rail nine years ago.
He was the second horse to ever win the Derby from the No. 19 post, I'll Have Another was the first in 2012, who went on to win the Preakness before scratching before the Belmont.
Country House was the first horse since Super Saver in 2010 to not win his prep race before the Derby, finishing third in the Arkansas Derby behind Omaha Beach and Improbable.
It was his first win since breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park in January and only his second in seven starts. The $1.86 million winner’s share of the purse brought his career earnings to over $2.12 million.
The favorite had won the Derby six consecutive times on the First Saturday in May, with the disqualification into 65-1 Country House, this streak was ended.
Was the veering and subsequent bump enough to cause Country House the lengths he finished behind the disqualified winner? It was surely a controversial call in a sport that has had its share of negative publicity over the past two months.
On to Baltimore, where I’m sure Maximum Security will be waiting.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.