In the rush to judgment and the hubbub of the aftermath of the first disqualification to result in a horse immediately being placed the winner of the Kentucky Derby, there is something that most are missing.
Everyone has been fixated on the disqualification of Maximum Security for interfering with three other horses including War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress after he crossed the wire first in the 145th Run for the Roses. Few will talk about the strong run in the slop by Country House, who crossed the line second but was placed the winner.
This was Country House’s second career win and he obviously flew under the radar, left out of the gate by the betting public at long odds of 65/1. He got no respect before the race and as the first horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby via disqualification for an on-track infraction, he still has a lot to prove to quiet the skeptics. He will always have a unique place in the historical context of the Kentucky Derby, as now he has a denotation next to his name already on Wikipedia that he won via disqualification. This is like the asterisk next to Roger Maris’ 61 homerun record all over again!
Obviously, it’s a lot different since Country House will never get rid of the asterisk since in our historical scribes it must be known that he didn’t cross the wire first. Experts and fans alike have screamed that Maximum Security was the best horse in the race. This is probably true when comparing him to Country House, since the infraction on the far turn didn’t impede Country House and Maximum Security still bared down in the stretch to win, beating Country House by a solid 1 ¾ lengths.
Overall, who was really best, though? We may never know. Maybe War of Will was the best. If he didn’t get crossed up by Maximum Security and was forced to check badly, impeding his progress at a crucial point in the race, maybe War of Will wins the race.
Only time will tell who will prove themselves at the top of the crop in the coming weeks along the Triple Crown trail and into the summer, but right now, it’s premature to dismiss Country House as a one-hit wonder and he deserves more credit and acknowledgment for his accomplishment.
Country House’s Derby Run
If you follow the Derby, you know the break is the most important part of the race. Many horses have lost a Derby a few strides out of the gate, as the demolition Derby ensues, and horses are bumped and jostled amongst the 20-horse scramble. Country House had consistently struggled to break out of the gate cleanly in his career up to this point, including in his maiden win when he almost ran directly into the rail out of the gate at Gulfstream Park in January. In that break-out performance that put him on the Derby trail, he was far behind the pack, but remarkably rallied and drew off with an eye-catching stride.
Country House continued to have issues coming slow out of the gate in the Risen Star (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2), but in the Kentucky Derby, he finally got out of the gate cleanly and it made all the difference. Jockey Flavien Prat put Country House in the perfect spot behind a steady early pace sitting 8th in the pack. For a horse that couldn’t break and was always at a disadvantage because of it, it was a surprise to even his Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
I had the honor to be the first person to ask a question at the Kentucky Derby post-race press conference and asked Mott if it was his plan to be closer to the pace in the Derby with Country House. Mott replied, “No, I thought we would probably be out the back, and I expressed my thoughts to Flavien just to be patient with him, let him break. I didn’t feel he had a lot of early gate speed. When he was laying in close proximity to the leaders, I was a little surprised. But I could tell that he was really traveling well. He wasn’t running off, but he was traveling very well. He handled the slop very well.”
If Country House can demonstrate this new-found weapon of tactical speed, this may be the key for him to prove the skeptics wrong going forward. Prat advanced four wide into the far turn on Country House, putting in a sustained run. The official results chart for the race reads that he was “brushed by Long Range Toddy while largely unaffected by the incident five-sixteenths out.”
Next, Country House made a bold move and looked like the winner at the 1/8th pole and was eye-to-eye with Maximum Security. Yes, Maximum Security repelled his challenge and that is the true mark of a good horse, so people (including the President of the United States) aren’t wrong to say Maximum Security was the best horse when they had to square off, but it wasn’t like Country House was chop liver either. He was still a clear second by a ¾ length over some very good horses in Graded-Stakes winners Code of Honor, Tacitus, Improbable and Game Winner.
The Past Will Project the Future
Country House is now finding his best stride after running consistently well on the Derby trail. People forgot very quickly that he finished third in the highly-rated Arkansas Derby (G1) behind likely Derby favorite Omaha Beach (who was forced to scratch days before the Kentucky Derby with an entrapped epiglottis) and Improbable (who was the 4/1 betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby). Yes, Country House was 6 ¾ lengths behind Omaha Beach and 5 ¾ behind Improbable in that race, but he showed the class to beat the rest of them to clinch his spot in the Derby.
War of Will showed his resolve in the Derby and proved he’s one of the best in the crop. Country House ran second to him in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds in February, losing by only 2 ¼ lengths, so Country House has the back class. That was Country House’s first stakes race, jumping right from his maiden breaker into a Grade 2 at Fair Grounds, which is not an easy task for a three-year-old early in his sophomore campaign.
Mott continued with the question I asked him, “He’s a horse that’s been on the improve. He’s been a big backward type of horse. When he was a two‑year‑old, he was one of those that didn’t show us a lot until he got in the fall of the year and we ran him a couple times. And it seemed like the lightbulb was starting to come on. I’ve been telling people all winter that if this horse ever wakes up and figures (it) out, really, what he’s doing, that the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby is certainly within his reach and not to discount him.”
They did discount him and have continued to after the race as the general public has judged him solely on the last 1/4-mile of the Kentucky Derby.
Silencing the Skeptics
I’m not saying that Country House is an all-time great. Mott even joked the morning after the race that the impending rivalry between Maximum Security and Country House is far from Alydar vs. Affirmed along the 1978 Triple Crown trail. All I am saying is give this horse some credit.
Mott has said that Country House is a big, strong horse and was able to bring him back on three weeks rest after the Louisiana Derby to run in the Arkansas Derby because of his stature. He has fought the wars. He’s been there with the best in the class. Still, if he doesn’t win from here on out, he may go down as one of the worst Kentucky Derby winners of all time.
The Kentucky Derby trail that dumbfounded most people this year has turned into an absolute spectacle in the Triple Crown. Horse racing now will get national attention to see if Country House is really good and if his performance was worthy of being lauded as a Kentucky Derby winner or if it was all a fluke.
The Preakness now becomes must-watch TV for sports fans across the country. If Country House doesn’t win there, then the skeptics will have the same knee jerk reaction and say, “See he really wasn’t so good and Maximum Security was robbed of a Derby win.”
Country House will need to break well again, demonstrate his new-found tactical speed and show the ability to pass a worthy foe in the stretch, that he was unable to do against Maximum Security here and War of Will in the Risen Star.
Mott is a Hall-of-Fame trainer and will have him ready. His size and strength are to his benefit to recoup from the two weeks from the Derby to the Preakness. This will likely be a rare year when the Kentucky Derby winner is not the Preakness favorite, as the doubters will continue to play against Country House. If he shows up again, maybe he gets it done. If he loses in the Preakness, though, the asterisk next to this Derby win will continue to grow in magnitude until he’s able to prove he can win another Grade 1 Stakes in his career.
As a final note, I wanted this recap to shine positivity of the performance of Country House and not get stuck in the mud about if this stewards’ decision was right or wrong. If you want to hear my take on that, please listen to me on the Racing Dudes Blinkers Off podcast here, that was recorded on Derby night a few hours after the race.
Please also follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and let me know your thoughts.