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Racing Commission rejects appeal of disqualification for derby horse

Maximum Security crosses the finish line first in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but the horse was disqualified 22 minutes later by the track stewards
(Christian Hansen/NYT)

Gary West, the owner of disqualified Kentucky Derby horse Maximum Security, upped the ante on the post-race rhetoric Monday, May 6, by calling Churchill Downs “greedy” and saying he would appeal the decision — only to find out later that appeals are not allowed.

Appearing on NBC’s “Today” show from his Rancho Santa Fe home, West challenged the standard 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, saying it was risky to horses and jockeys, then declared Maximum Security out of the Preakness.

“There is no Triple Crown on the line for us,” West said, “and there is no reason to run a horse back in two weeks when you don’t have to.”

The appeal he filed with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission was denied because disqualifications are exempt from the appeal process.

“The stewards unanimously disqualified Maximum Security following two objections lodged immediately after the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby and after a thorough review of a race replay,” John L. Forgy, general counsel of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said in a letter. “That determination is not subject to an appeal.”

The appeal, filed by lawyer Barry Stilz on behalf of West and his wife, Mary, in Lexington, Ky., requested that all Derby purse money be placed in escrow “pending final determination.” It also requested access to video replays; notes from the stewards who ruled that Maximum Security had interfered with another horse; and the statements from trainers and jockeys that stewards used in their decision-making process.

West said he was disappointed by the KHRC decision, but he added the matter is not settled.

“Based on everything that has happened so far, I’m not surprised,” West told The Associated Press in a phone interview after the appeal was denied. “We’ll file suit in whatever the appropriate court is. I don’t know the answer to that, but the lawyers that I have retained will know what the appropriate venue is.”

On Saturday, May 4, Churchill Downs stewards disqualified the winner for interference for the first time in the race’s 145-year history. Country House, which had crossed the line second, was declared the winner. The decision has been the subject of national debate that has included President Donald Trump, who said it was a byproduct of political correctness.

In the interview on NBC, West took strong issue with the decision and the racetrack.

“It was literally like the old TV show: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all within a 22-minute period of time,” West said. “Winning it was probably the most euphoric thing Mary and I have ever had in our lives, and then disappointment when they took him down for the first time in history. We were stunned, shocked and in total disbelief.”

West’s strongest words were directed at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby is the only major U.S. race that allows 20 starters. (Because of a scratch, there were 19 on Saturday.) Most major races in the nation are capped at 14 starters, either because of the width of the track or for the manageability of the race.

“Churchill Downs, because they are a greedy organization, (doesn’t run) 14 (in the Derby) like you have in the Kentucky Oaks, Breeders’ Cup and just about every other race in America,” West said. “Just because they can make more money, they are willing to risk horses’ lives and peoples’ lives to do that. I’m not a fan of that. I think they ought to have 14 like every other race.”

Only one horse has ever died as a result of running in the Kentucky Derby — Eight Belles in 2008.

“We understand that the Wests are disappointed that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards disqualified Maximum Security,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs. “However, the stewards are responsible for regulating and enforcing the rules of racing in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and we respect and support their decision. The infraction committed by Maximum Security has nothing to do with the number of horses in the race, which has been a consistent number for many years, and there is no evidence to the contrary.”

West could seek civil litigation, although that would be a long process.

“There are so many questions,” said Darrell Vienna, a former trainer who is an attorney specializing in equine law. “Was the horse clear? Did the horse swerve? The real issue is, did it alter the finish? How do you argue against the discretion of the stewards? For the amount of money at stake, it’s an interesting case.”

It was more than an emotional loss for the Wests. A $1.86 million first-place check slipped through their fingers when the colt was disqualified and moved to 17th place, but the bigger effect was to Maximum Security’s value as a stallion.

If his victory stood, Maximum Security’s value would have catapulted to $20 million. Another victory in the Preakness would have doubled it, while a Triple Crown sweep could have lifted it up to $60 million.

After skipping the Preakness, Maximum Security, even if he returns to win the Belmont Stakes, would have a stud value of roughly $5 million to $8 million, according to blood stock analysts.

— San Diego Union-Tribune freelance writer John Cherwa, The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report

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