After 145 years of enjoying a stellar reputation as one of the most colorful, traditional, beloved events in the sports stratosphere, the halo fell off the Kentucky Derby in just 20 minutes on May 5. Thousands of even the most casual racing fans were outraged when Maximum Security, a favorite of bettors due to the horse’s ability to run well in rainy conditions, was declared the winner and subsequently disqualified following an inquiry by fellow jockeys. It was a historic turn of events that will go down in the record books as a day of embarrassment for the Derby.
The surprising decision was appalling to many for several reasons, including:
A race winner has never been overturned and disqualified in the sport’s 145-year history
Although inquiries are not unusual in horse racing, they are typically resolved quickly – within a few minutes is the norm – and not 20 minutes the stewards took to reach a decision at the Derby
The controversy centered on Maximum Security veering into another lane down the stretch. It’s the responsibility of the stewards to watch the race closely and determine if a foul was committed. This did not happen at the Derby. Instead, jockeys for Code of Honor and Game Winner called for the inquiry
While more than 150,000 spectators stood in the rain waiting on the final result, the three stewards in the control room obviously could not agree. By the time they announced Maximum Security was disqualified and declared longshot Country House the winner, all the excitement, pomp and ceremony surrounding the Derby came to a screeching halt
Chaos ensued, as fans loudly booed the decision – probably a first in itself as horse racing fans usually don’t publicly hate on the winner, no matter how many mint juleps they’ve gulped down or how many losing tickets they are holding. But this time it was different. Whether the decision was right or wrong, the way it was bungled by the stewards left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Even commentators and reporters at major news outlets spouted that the race was stolen from Maximum Security, who was clearly the best horse at the race. But there would be no roses for him.
Racing experts such as Scott T. Miller with The Action Network estimated the Derby blunder bettors at least $42 million in possible winnings, and this was from just calculating wagers from the online gambling service at Churchill Downs. Factor in millions from online gambling services and accountants will be scrambling to figure out what the true cost of the decision means to those who gambled on Maximum Security. What no one will be able to predict for months -- or even years – is what this mess will cost the Derby in the court of public opinion.
Sure, ladies will wear their fancy fascinators and outrageous hats and extravagant Derby parties and events will go on as usual next year. But how many people will be gun shy about betting on any horse to win after this year’s shameful debacle?
If the Derby powers-that-be were smart, they would confer with public relations professionals immediately for a clear reputation management strategy. There are 363 days remaining until the next Derby, and until then, bad vibes and accusations will persist. Here’s a short list of what Derby officials and PR pros could do to tame this snafu:
The Derby should investigate what exactly happened with the three stewards who determined the outcome. What was the experience level of the stewards? Why didn’t they raise an inquiry after the race? And most importantly, why did they take 20 minutes to reach a decision? Fans have questions that need to be answered, and the Derby should waste no time in getting ahead of this problem
PR pros should hunt for human interest stories that would focus on individuals who benefited from the decision. Since the winner Country House had 65-1 odds, are there any warm and fuzzy “rags to riches” stories of people who bet the longshot and will have their lives changed by their winnings?
PR professionals should pitch stories to media with the angle of educating the public about horse racing rules. The angle should be that although the decision was unpopular, it was the “right” decision given the video evidence. If the rules were clarified about what it means to veer or switch lanes in a race and how this can endanger other horses and riders, opinion could shift
Whatever happens, the Derby has an uphill battle to gain back the respect of fans who expect and deserve better decision-making.