Looking Back at a Memorable Derby

You can like the final result or not like it, but it’s safe to say we won’t be forgetting this Run for the Roses anytime soon.

There’s a lot of ground I want to cover, but the disqualification, itself…not so much. By now, every possible opinion has been expressed 15 different ways, and mine is no better or more valid than anyone else’s. If it’s not already there yet, the conversation seems on its way from the water cooler to yesterday’s papers—especially this afternoon with the news that Country House will be bypassing the Preakness due to a cough. The early reaction to that defection on social media has struck me as three parts disappointed and one part angry…as though Mott is letting the sport down. Of course, he is not. If he were to run an even partially sick horse in the race and the horse were to turn in a clunker, THEN he’d be letting the sport (and the horse and himself) down. It’s probably lucky for Mott, though, that Maximum Security had already been declared out of the Preakness. Imagine, otherwise, the accusations he’d face of trying to duck Maximum Security.

* * *

We are contest players…and you’re reading this on a contest website. So it would seem inappropriate to begin a Kentucky Derby “recap” with anything other than the wonderful (maybe even somewhat comical) victory in the Kentucky Derby Betting Championship by one of HorseTourneys’ most enthusiastic and loyal customers, Rick Broth.

The 61-year-old Atlanta resident had been having the kind of Derby weekend to which we can all relate. Lots of bets, zero cashed tickets. By the time the Kentucky Derby had rolled around, Broth’s starting bankroll of $8,000 had dwindled to $1,000.

He had an opinion in the Derby, though. It was one he had expressed five days before the race in a new “Let it Ride Podcast” he had recorded five days earlier with friend and fellow HorseTourneys player Anthony Mattera. If you wish, you can listen to it here:

Some of you might find the podcast noteworthy due to Anthony being cast in the unfamiliar role of “straight man”. (Warning to you young readers out there and their parents, though, he DOES drop a couple of F-bombs. And neither commentator takes many pains to be politically correct.)

What most will find of interest, though, is Broth’s Derby prognostication. His top three were Tacitus, Country House and Code of Honor in that order.

By the time of the Derby, however, Rick’s confidence was pretty well shot. Still, he stuck to his guns and put his last thousand into a variety of exacta and trifecta boxes that involved his three main horses plus a few others…Maximum Security not among them.

Rick watched the race standing next to his wife of 28 years, Karen. Lo and behold, as the field turned for home, they realized he had a shot. But Maximum Security wouldn’t let anyone past him, and Rick and Karen looked on helplessly as Rick’s “big three” finished second, third and fourth.

With the familiarity that only 28 years together can bring, Rick and Karen looked at each other, both knowing exactly what the other was thinking. It was the same thought: Let’s get the hell out of here.

So they did. Rick, Karen and their son had a long drive to Nashville ahead of them that night, so they bolted for the exits, hopped in their car and made it as far as I-65 South, when Rick got a call from Anthony, telling him that he might just want to turn around. An objection was in progress.

At this point, Rick had to be faced with a true gambler’s dilemma. He had a $20 exacta box live to Country House, Code of Honor and Tacitus, and a $1.50 trifecta box alive to those three as well. That’s a lot of money to keep driving away from. But would turning around and heading back to Churchill Downs jinx the whole thing and just rub the final measure of salt into a weekend’s worth of wounds?

Rick decided to do the only prudent thing he could think of. He pulled over to the shoulder of I-65 and waited…and waited…scrambling furiously from his phone to his radio and back to try and glean some sort of information on how the objection would be adjudicated.

When the result finally make its way to Rick on the side of the road, he couldn’t believe his luck. His exacta and trifecta was worth a total $47,000.

“I know I’m known as somewhat of a whiner,” Broth said later with a laugh. “But I’m a guy who never gets put up. I either get taken down, or I don’t get put up when I should get put up. I lost a bundle in the Bayern race at the Breeders’ Cup. And I lost what would have been a six-figure Pick Six in the Arlington Million when Powerscourt got disqualified. These things never work out my way.”

But they did this time, and now Broth had to turn around, swim upstream and get himself and his family back to Churchill Downs, just as everyone was trying to leave.

“That was absolutely brutal,” he chuckled. “We had to leave the car at a house and walk back a long way. The one good thing was that a security guard let us go back in through a VIP gate, so we got to see Cris Collinsworth, Baker Mayfield and Rand Paul on our way back in.”

When Rick made his way back upstairs to the players’ area, he found Mattera and learned the good news, his $47,000 windfall had moved him all the way to the top of the Betting Championship, meaning he would receive another $90,000 in bonus money plus a $10,000 to November’s Breeders’ Cup Betting Championship. It was the biggest score of his lifetime.

“I can never whine again,” he says.

Rick Broth–after the Derby…and a few extra miles on his odometer–flanked by Anthony Mattera on the left and Rick’s wife Karen on the right. (Photo credit, Churchill Downs)

* * *

Rick Broth’s good fortune meant extremely bad fortune for another notable HorseTourneys account holder, Gary West, owner of Maximum Security.

As tough beats go, this one has to take the cake. It may be one of the worst in sports history, let alone in horse racing.

It has to be tough losing the Derby when you believe you had the best horse, right? Well, what if I told you that the best horse in the race wasn’t Maximum Security, but West’s other runner, Game Winner?

Mind you, ferreting out bad trips in a race like the Derby is an extremely subjective endeavor. So reasonable minds can absolutely disagree with any such assessments of mine. For example, I’ve heard some say that Tacitus and Improbable had tough trips, though I don’t necessarily agree. War of Will clearly had an unlucky trip. But this I will go to the bank on—no one had a wider trip than Game Winner. Wide leaving the first turn; very wide down the backstretch (in a race in which Maximum Security, War of Will, Code of Honor and Master Fencer all traveled very well at various stages while glued to the fence); and then almost laughably wide around the far turn.

It reminded me, in many respects, of Risen Star’s trip in the 1988 Derby. (He’s not easy to see, but just look for the black silks widest of all around the far turn. He was far easier to spot in his next two races…when he won the Preakness by a little over a length, and then the Belmont by almost 15.)

Game Winner may not have won the Derby…neither the first nor the second time it was decided. But I bet he gets the best sheets number!

* * *

One more thing about Maximum Security, and why I feel I delivered the most brilliant handicapping opinion of anyone who tried to predict this year’s Derby.

Early in the week, a relative (who now works part time as a security guard) asked me who I thought would win the Derby. I was still deciding between three or four at this point, but the professional connection seemed too obvious to let slip by, so I told him, “Maximum Security!”

The look on his face suggested he thought I might just be feeding him a clever name rather than cogent handicapping analysis, so I felt compelled to then throw in, “With his running style, he’s the kind of horse who will either finish 1st or 17th.”

As it turned out, he did both.

* * *

On to Country House. There is one overriding question I have about his Derby: “Where the hell did THAT race come from?”

And by “that race,” I don’t mean his “finished-second, placed-first” victory or his 99 Beyer figure. I don’t think either of those were implausible given how well matched the field was on paper. What I mean is that handy, “up-into-the-race” style that he displayed under Flavien Prat. In all four of his prior 2019 starts, he looked strictly like a one-run closer who liked to come from way out of it. Had you told me that he’d be positioned in the top half of the Derby field after a half-mile in :46 and change, I’d have said you were nuts.

Sad as it is to admit, this question plagued me for a good 48 hours after the race. My only hypothesis was the old trusty standby, “He must have really liked that Churchill slop. (As opposed to the Oaklawn slop on which he was 10th of 11 after a half mile in the Arkansas Derby.)

Just yesterday, though, I recalled something Jerry Bailey had said on the NBC telecast early in the day on Saturday, and though he was only speaking in general terms, I think it might have applied to Country House.

The host was talking about the various, shifting jockey assignments, and he asked Bailey if it was a disadvantage to a horse to have a Derby jockey that had never ridden him before. His answer surprised me.

“Actually, it can be an advantage sometimes,” he said.

Bailey went on to explain that when a rider wins on a horse and then rides him back, he will tell himself that he has to ride the horse the exact same way, and that may not mesh with the circumstances in play that day, or even with what the horse, himself, really wants to do. He said that when riders ride a horse for the first time, they are much more likely to let the horse “place himself” into the race and let the horse basically dictate the game plan.

In hindsight, I think that’s what Prat did, and the strategy—or lack thereof—obviously worked out well. And it did certainly help that, for whatever reason, Country House didn’t break as slowly for Prat, as he did for Joel Rosario (once) and Luis Saez (three times). He didn’t break super sharp, but it wasn’t an overly tardy start either, and once Country House got away from there, Prat let him do his thing. Who knew that that would be his thing? (I do find it quite ironic, though, that Country House was going to be Luis Saez’s Derby mount…until Saez won the Florida Derby on Maximum Security.)

* * *

Of course, Country House was no sure bet to even be in the Derby until the Arkansas Derby was over—and that brings me to my next issue that probably just 1% of you will find interesting, but which intrigues me to no end.

For his distant, third-place finish in Hot Springs, Country House earned 20 points to give him a total of 50. Had he passed the race and stood pat with 30 points, he would have been on the outside looking in, relegated at best to the AE list behind the likes of Bodexpress, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Sueno and Bourbon War. Instead, he’s a Derby winner.

Many of you have seen how James Holzhauer has sort of revolutionized Jeopardy! by using optimal bet-sizing strategy. I’m not sure it was by design, but I think math is what Bill Mott and the Country House connections profited by in their choosing of the February 16, 50-points-to-the-winner Risen Star Stakes as Country House’s first stakes prep. That was the first 50-point race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points schedule. The next wasn’t for another two weeks.

This allowed Country House to earn 20 points for running second to War of Will in the Risen Star…run back in a comfortable five weeks in the year’s first 100-points-to-the-winner race (the March 23 Louisiana Derby in which Country House only got 10 points for finishing fourth)…then run back in a snug but not too unreasonable three weeks in the final 100-points-to-the-winner race, the April 13 Arkansas Derby, where Country House got the 20 points that ultimately landed him in the history books.

Country House was the only horse this year who participated in two 100-point races, and he got a 50-point race in ahead of that! It’s a little bit like you playing in a 12-race HorseTourneys contest in which one of your opponents gets to play 16 races.

That would be unfair, of course, and what Mott and Country House did wasn’t at all unfair since such a plan of attack was theoretically open and available to everyone. Their schedule may partially (or more than partially) explain why Country House can’t make the Preakness.

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t shock me—assuming the Derby points schedule remains the same—if the 2020 Risen Star Stakes draws another full field of 14 next year. I’m guessing James Holzhauer would agree.