The less imaginative among us are calling it “Gait-gate.” Not as clever as “Watergate” — derivatives never are — but it’s about horses, not humans. Jonathan Swift might have included this story in “Gulliver’s Travels.” A horse goofs; humans whine; and the Kentucky Derby disqualifies the winner for the first time in its 145 years.
In contemporary America, where everyone has an opinion and the means to shout it out, the Derby is an occasion when men and horses in their prime play to the best of form. The president of the United States tweets on the outcome as if remarking on a foreign policy failure: “The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby — not even close.”
Hillary Clinton could sympathize with Maximum Security, robbed of the roses. Country House, like the Donald, came out of the mud and mire of a soggy track; spurned by press, bettor and oddsmaker alike; relegated to a humiliating 65-to-1 long shot; and snatched it all. Whether or not the first horse to cross the wire made a frightful error of judgment by leaning too far to the right (ahem), blocking other horses, the three track stewards unanimously agreed they had observed a foul. The 20 minutes they took to come to their decision felt like an election recount, with all the anxiety and nervousness of high-stakes drama, no hanging chads but lots of video replays.
When Maximum Security was disqualified, the internet lit up in righteous disbelief. “Country House won the popular vote,” claimed one poor loser. “If America ran its election the way the Derby is run,” cried another, “Hillary Clinton would be the president.” The New York Sun, sticking with the original winner, called the fiasco “the demolition derby.”
Denied the roses, Maximum Security was not the only casualty of this sad drama. Chief among the winners was the brave bettor who risked $2 and collected $132.40. Chief among the losers was Maximum Security, the price of whose sperm dropped dramatically. (Will the sperm of Country House be worth anything?)
Bill Mott, the trainer of Country House, a Hall of Famer and winner of 4,900 races, naturally feels bad over the race result. Instead of basking in his 15 minutes of rosy fame, he feels he has to make some sort of apology for a derby winner with a permanent asterisk forever by his name. The Donald would never do that. The horse developed an equine cough and was scratched for the Preakness, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.
“I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m not happy about winning,” Mott tells The Wall Street Journal. “I’m thrilled for the owners and the horse, but it’s such an unusual way to have to go to the winner’s circle.”
President Trump blames political correctness for taking the roses away from Maximum Security. Why and how, the president does not say. But Kentucky racing law was fairly, if narrowly, applied. Clearly, the best horse didn’t win, and the actual obstruction of which Maximum Security is accused wouldn’t have made a winner of any of the other horses. Racing fans with a yen for the underdog can’t be pleased. The underdog didn’t defy the odds but had defiance thrust upon him.
Still, the parallels with politics fascinate. Clinton and her friends complain that she was the winner in 2016 because she won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College, possible under the rules as written. Friends of Maximum Security compare this disqualifying decision to other bad calls that make sports such a popular pastime. Who can forget the National Football League playoff game this year when the officials failed to see and call blatant pass interference by the Los Angeles Rams, and the New Orleans Saints were cheated of another trip to the Super Bowl?
Others compare the Demolition Derby to the 2017 Academy Awards when, after a fumbled envelope, “La La Land” was announced as best picture only to be corrected to the real winner, “Moonlight.” In a time of galloping developments in artificial intelligence, it’s reassuring to be reminded that human inefficiency and error can still make us think again about what goes on before our eyes. Transparency is crucial in the affairs of both humans and horses. Horses appear to be better sports about it than Rep. Jerry Nadler and the Democrats.
President Trump, who typically invites champions to bask in his aura at the White House, should consider inviting both Country House and Maximum Security. It’s about time that a whole horse gets an invitation. The loser gets an apple and the winner a lump of sugar, to reflect on how sweet it is.
Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times. Email her at email@example.com.