OCEANPORT, N.J. — The last arrival I showed up for at Monmouth Park was American Pharoah’s, when the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years triumphantly stepped off a van in the late afternoon heat for what would be an historic Haskell Day back in 2015.
On Tuesday morning, just before 6 a.m., I was on the backstretch as Maximum Security, after a 16-hour van ride from Churchill Downs, made his way down the ramp as the latest lightning rod for a sport that’s spent the last three months under a microscope. Such is your fate as the first Kentucky Derby winner ever disqualified for interference at a time when the game is in flux.
And Maximum Security’s legacy could ultimately be as significant American Pharoah’s, as the 3-year-old settled into Barn 2, joining 65 other Jason Servis-trained runners.
Maximum Security, who won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday only to be disqualified, walks onto the backstretch at Monmouth Park after a 16-hour van ride from Churchill Downs on Tuesday morning. (Photo: Steve Edelson)
Think about this for a moment.
Maximum Security was a claimer anyone could have purchased at Gulfstream Park last December for $16,000, went on to win the greatest American race and now looms as the central figure in an incredibly controversial episode that serves as a metaphor for a racing industry seeking a path forward within the realm of public perception.
It’s all part of the narrative that began earlier this year at Santa Anita, when the death of 23 thoroughbreds in just over two months was nothing short of a reckoning for a sport that’s been slow to change, but now better understands the shifting landscape.
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Whether you think Maximum Security should have been taken down and placed 17th by the stewards for interfering with several horses, bearing out on the lead as the field turned for home, is almost irrelevant. Same as whether you think Lasix or other medications, or the use of a riding crop, had anything to do with the string of equine fatalities in Southern California.
Because it was those 22 agonizing minutes spent waiting for a decision on Saturday that had a profound impact, particularly on casual fans. When endless replays from every angle imaginable clearly showed how dangerous the sport can be for horse and rider, with legs intertwined for several strides.
Just like the weeks of uncertainty and mounting death toll at Santa Anita allowed long-simmering issues to bubble to the surface, starting a conversation that desperately needed to happen at a time when attracting a new, younger audience is the key to survival.
The winds of change are already swirling, with a coalition of 20 top tracks, including Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Saratoga and Gulfstream, poised to phase out the race day use of Lasix, which reduces pulmonary bleeding. Meanwhile, legislation by Washington lawmakers seeks unify medication rules and drug testing under a national umbrella, rather than continue with a piecemeal collection of state regulations.
Perhaps Maximum Security wouldn’t have been taken down a decade or two ago. And maybe the 2019 Kentucky Derby will be the impetus for ending the 20-horse cavalry charge if future fields are cut back to a reasonable number of qualified contenders, as Maximum Security owner Gary West suggested on Monday.
As for Maximum Security, I have to think a path to redemption awaits over the next few months for this son of New Year’s Day. And I hope it includes the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational on July 20 at the track where Servis spent 20 years as a valet in the jockey’s room while galloping horses in the morning after a growth spurt ended his dream of riding, with local owners giving him his start in the training ranks.
It’s still a great story. And while a ruling eliminated Maximum Security's chance to win a Triple Crown even though he’s reached the wire first in each of his five career starts, what transpired last weekend could make him, and what happens next, even more significant.
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