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Horse racing matters again, for all the wrong reasons

Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security’s DQ was a shocking showstopper
Luis Saez rides Maximum Security, center, crosses the finish line first ahead of Country House, left, and jockey Flavien Prat, during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, but  Country House was declared the winner after Maximum Security was disqualified following a review by race stewards. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Luis Saez rides Maximum Security, center, crosses the finish line first ahead of Country House, left, and jockey Flavien Prat, during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, but Country House was declared the winner after Maximum Security was disqualified following a review by race stewards. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Published May 5, 2019
Updated May 5, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG – Thoroughbred horse racing is dying. We all know we’re at its graveside.

Attendance is dwindling, consumed by off-track betting. Too many magnificent creatures are losing their lives. What chance, if any, does the Kentucky Derby have?

Saturday, it even lacked any buzz of anticipation, the beginning of a Triple Crown threat. That ended with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015 and with Justify just last year.

Then came Saturday.

Something big.

I was standing in my living room getting ready to head for dinner. But now I couldn’t take my eyes off the TV, and all those people standing in the rain and mud and maybe even manure on the track at racing’s cathedral: jockeys with mud-caked boots, trainers in ties under rain jackets, horse owners in their Easter best, all of them staring an infield tote board and the UNOFFICIAL on it.

Then it blinked to OFFICIAL. Derby winner Maximum Security was taken down for interfering with several horses, disqualified. Country House, a 65-to-1 longshot, was declared victorious. And so, it had happened, for the first time in the history of a race that had been run 145 times, dating back to shortly after the Civil War, when Lee dismounted at Appomattox to meet Grant and his winning ticket.

Something big. Bruins-Blue Jackets and the Stanley Cup playoffs didn’t matter. Neither did James Harden’s 41 in the NBA playoffs. Neither did an entire slate of Major League Baseball games. Horse Racing held the spotlight for a few moments, but it was an ugly glare.

The post-race inquiry lasted nearly 22 minutes, not long for a country built on inquiries. The one that just wrapped up in Washington lasted 22 months and still has politicians running around in circles. But it lasted longer than any umpires’ review, or referees’ review (btw, we checked the replay: The Lightning still got swept). The New Orleans Saints are still looking for justice. I’m not sure if there was justice in the Louisville mud on Saturday, but it was riveting, the stewards looking at replays in a small room, led by the chief steward Barbara Borden, who was clearly living a true Katherine Harris moment, her 22 minutes of fame. The steward later took no questions at a news conference. Nice sport.

The innocents in all this were the chief competitors: the horses. Who would have blamed Maximum Security for stepping around a mud puddle? We do it all the time on rainy days. The point is that it wasn’t the horse’s idea to slide over and block the way. It’s never the horse’s idea. They’re just looking for their next bucket of oats. Wouldn’t it be great if, just once, they got to go to the whip on some of those people who stood in the mud and rain, soaked by shock, bourbon, or both, some armed with now losing tickets? Per chance to dream.

It was a time for a clear mind, and for great writing. Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated did not disappoint, producing a masterful narrative of the post-race scene:

“They would wait and then wait some more and when it was finished they would all stand at the intersection of history and shock. … It would be a moment unlike anything before it, in this place, in this race, a moment that will outlive all of them and all of us.”

I was late for dinner by a lot. I met a friend. Her fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh words:

“What about that race?”

It will go away soon enough, forgotten again. But for a few minutes, 22 to be exact, horse racing was big, even if for the wrong reasons.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly