On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit provided what will almost certainly be the final word on the winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby: Maximum Security finished first but Country House—a 65 to 1 longshot—won.
Why would a federal appeals court weigh in on a horse race?
Because Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West, sued the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) on grounds that the outcome violated their civil rights.
It’s been 15 months since the controversial race. KHRC stewards disqualified Maximum Security because he swerved out of lane and allegedly interfered with three other horses—War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. Maximum Security’s finish was downgraded from first, which carried a purse of $1.5 million, to last.
Some insisted that Maximum Security had been railroaded. President Donald Trump, who opined that the track was “sloppy and wet,” tweeted, “The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby – not even close!”
The Wests maintained that the stewards violated their due process by adopting an “arbitrary and capricious” approach. The stewards allegedly failed to interview the jockeys, trainers and owners of two of the affected horses before reaching a ruling. They were also arguably vague about which specific rules applied and declined to answer media questions.
The Wests appealed to the KHRC but were told that a decision to disqualify isn’t subject to appeal. “Findings of fact and determination,” state law reads, “shall be final and shall not be subject to appeal.” The Wests asserted the inability to appeal was an unlawful procedure.
Last November, U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the stewards’ decision simply wasn’t reviewable under Kentucky law. In other words, the type of review sought by the Wests was not one for a court.
Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, U.S. Appeals Judge John Bush affirmed Judge Caldwell’s dismissal. He stressed that courts are ill-suited to decide which horse won a race.
“To be sure,” Judge Bush writes, “a good judge is an umpire who calls balls and strikes. But we are not game officials in the literal sense, and we are ill-equipped to determine the outcome of sporting contests.”
To bolster this position, Judge Bush cited several cases, including Carl Mayer v Bill Belichick—better known as the Spygate case. In it, a Jets season-ticket holder sued Belichick, the Patriots and the NFL, arguing that they breached his supposed right “to observe an honest match.” The court ruled against the plaintiff in part because there was no viable legal claim: he had gotten what he paid for, a ticket to watch the Jets play the Patriots.
Applying that interpretation to which horse won the Derby, Judge Bush noted that whether a “foul occurs in a horse race” is up to “designated racing experts—the stewards . . . it is not our place to second-guess.” As a result, Judge Bush reasoned, the Wests lack a viable legal claim.
The Wests can petition the Sixth Circuit for an en banc review (where other judges would review the matter), but such petitions are seldom granted. They can then petition the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court only grants about 2% of petitions. And it usually does so when federal courts are divided on a key legal question—not applicable here—or the case is of great importance to the country. The winner of the Derby is certainly newsworthy but is hardly a profound topic in America these days.