He’s also changed his mind about the stewards
Let's start with the obvious: The stewards made the right call in disqualifying Maximum Security. Our first impression was that the DQ was a mistake, but the replays, especially those taken from a drone above the action, changed our mind. Maximum Security clearly veered into the path of, and clearly impeded, War of Will, and the rules of racing in Kentucky, as written, mandate that this kind of infraction warrants a disqualification. One can argue that the rules are imprecise, and that they are not applied in a consistent fashion, and one can definitely argue that the lack of uniform national standards is an embarrassment to the sport. One can also say that the announcement of the disqualification was handled clumsily, and that the stewards' refusal to answer questions was outrageous. But none of this changes the fact that going by the book, the stewards got it right.
Let's also go back and look at our handicapping of the race, and look at it in the context of how the race was run. The big story, of course, was Maximum Security: His effort was a big one, and was proof that his win in the Florida Derby was no fluke. This is a serious racehorse. Country House also ran big, and this would be true if he'd remained in second place, rather than made the winner via disqualification
But let's look deeper into the way the race was run, specifically the pace. We thought that Maximum Security's wire-to-wire win in the Florida Derby was due to being able to set slow early fractions, and that he'd crack under the pressure of the Derby's pace, which we thought would be faster. This he emphatically did not do: He ran a half-mile in 46.62 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.50; these are very legitimate fractions in a 10-furlong race.
Moreover, the way the rest of the horses ran suggests that Maximum Security's effort in the Derby might have been even better than it looks on paper. The horses who were 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th after 6 furlongs ended up finishing 17th, 14th, 8th, and 5th. Conversely, the horses who ended up finishing second through fifth were, at the same six furlong mark of the race, 9th, 8th, 14th, and 5th. Maximum Security was the only one of the pacesetters who was still around at the end, and this is a big deal: it's usually indicative of a very, very strong effort.
The one thing that makes this less clear, however, was the condition of the track. After dodging rain for most of the day, it started pouring at Churchill Downs about an hour before the race, and the Kentucky Derby was run over a sealed track that was officially labeled sloppy. Was this responsible, in whole or in part, for how Maximum Security ran?
The honest answer is that we don't know. The way that we analyze track patterns, and outright track biases when they show up, is via the weight of cumulative evidence, if the same trends or patterns show up over and over again. If faint-hearted front-runners keep running longer than they should, it can be evidence of a speed bias; if horses running on the rail stop running in the stretch repeatedly, it may be evidence of a bad rail.
We can't do that with the Kentucky Derby, because we don't have enough races to look at. The races on the undercard were run before the rain, and while there were two dirt races run after the Derby, they did not show any pattern -- closers dominated one, and the other was won in wire-to-wire fashion. And they were run so much later than the Derby that the condition of the track could, and probably did, change in the interim.
Our guess at this point, and we stress that it's just a guess, is that the track was fair, and that Maximum Security's effort was legitimate, and he was not aided by the racing surface. He looks like a very serious racehorse to us, and the fact that he was entered in a $16,000 maiden claiming race in December -- and wasn't even favored! -- is kind of mind-boggling.
None of the other runners particularly distinguished himself. Country House looks like a nice colt, but to us not much more than that. Of the Bob Baffert trio, Improbable and Game Winner showed what they'd been showing all spring, that they're talented colts who have some ability, but not enough to win the big races. Roadster's race was an absolute fiasco -- he finished 16th -- and was a ghoulishly appropriate conclusion to a truly nightmarish winter for the sport in Southern California.
It's disappointing that we will not get to see a rematch between Maximum Security and Country House in Baltimore; Sunday morning, Maximum Security's trainer, Jason Servis, told reporters that they'd be skipping the Preakness to point to the Belmont Stakes, but we will find out in time how good these horses really are. Sometimes it takes the perspective that only time can provide to figure out a puzzle as complex as the Kentucky Derby, and this looks to be one of those times.
But perhaps the biggest impression we got from the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby was about a horse who wasn't even in it: The results in the slop at Churchill Downs convinced us more than ever that Omaha Beach is the best colt in his class. If he'd been healthy and run yesterday, we think he'd have won the race. We will be eagerly looking for him to get back to the track to prove us right.