Five Takeaways from the 2019 Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 7th, 2019

The Kentucky Derby is nicknamed “the greatest two minutes in sports,” but it’s safe to say the 2019 renewal could also be considered “the most controversial two minutes in sports.”

Seemingly everyone—even the President of the United States—has shared an opinion on the disqualification of Maximum Security, who crossed the wire first only to be disqualified for interference on the far turn, which resulted in the unaffected Country House being awarded the victory.

Since the event has been extensively debated already, let’s step outside the box and consider a few other points being overlooked to varying degrees…
  1. Maximum Security was the best horse…

Whether you agree or disagree with the disqualification of Maximum Security, no one is disputing that Maximum Security ran the best race. His antics on the turn compromised his own chances too—he even lost the lead to Code of Honor as a result—but remarkably, he battled back in the homestretch to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths. He was the first horse since Tomy Lee in 1959 to take the lead in the Derby, lose it and then regain it to cross the wire first.
  1. …except maybe for Game Winner

Although he never threatened to win, you can argue Game Winner ran just as well as Maximum Security. Compromised by bumping at the start, Game Winner trailed the field by nearly 20 lengths early on and raced extremely wide around the far turn, running 103 feet (about 13 lengths) farther than Maximum Security. Despite these obstacles, he stayed on resolutely to cross the wire sixth, beaten just 3 3/4 lengths. Should he run back in the Belmont Stakes (G1) five weeks from now, his grinding style could be perfectly suited to success in the 1 1/2-mile “Test of Champions.”
  1. There was good footing on the rail

Heavy rainfall leading up to the Kentucky Derby produced a sloppy track, and per the norm, it appeared the rail offered good footing for horses lucky enough to save ground. Maximum Security rode the rail for much of the race, as did Code of Honor, who crossed the wire third after racing inside almost every step of the way. Farther back, Master Fencer finished fastest of all (final quarter-mile in :24.31) while rallying up the rail, and War of Will came home a troubled (but gallant) eighth after racing inside for the first seven furlongs.
  1. The mud may have hurt Tacitus

If any horse was negatively affected by the sloppy track, it was Tacitus, who appeared thoroughly uncomfortable having mud kicked in his face. He weaved around and refused to settle during the opening quarter-mile and looked lost while trying to rally through traffic on the far turn, so give Tacitus credit for fighting on to cross the wire in fourth .
  1. The pace was unusual

This wasn’t your typical Kentucky Derby, with a gradual deceleration from start to finish. Maximum Security made sure of that, sprinting the opening quarter-mile in :22.31 (the ninth-fastest opening quarter in history) and the half-mile in :46.62, at which point 17 1/2 lengths separated first place from last. But then Maximum Security slowed down the pace dramatically through a :25.88 third quarter, causing the field to bunch up sharply until just 10 3/4 lengths covered the entire field. A fourth quarter in :26.13 compacted the field even more, after which Maximum Security re-broke and sprinted the final quarter-mile in a rapid (for the Derby) :25.30 seconds, by far the fastest such fraction since 2011.

The takeaway? Don’t assume the pace was falling apart late and giving closers an advantage, as is the case in many Derbys. The closers this year were compromised not only by the fast finish, but by the bizarrely slow second half-mile, which bunched up the field and forced many late runners (Game Winner included) to navigate eight, nine or 10 paths wide around the final turn.

What are your takeaways from the 2019 Kentucky Derby?