The way the Kentucky Derby ended up felt unjust, but that nature of the injustice was a little hard to pin down. My allies in the doomed but correct campaign against replay in sports took it as an occasion to make their point: what could more perfectly capture the essence of having real-time spectatorship made meaningless by bureaucratic interference? Everyone saw Maximum Security hold off his challengers and hit the finish line first, to win the Kentucky Derby, and the jockey and the trainer did their triumphant interviews, and then—everybody just stood around in the mud, awkwardly waiting to get the results of a multi-angle video study session about something that happened up the track.
Yet this was a real part of horse racing, in a way that questions of whether a receiver had time to make a football move after securing possession are not a real part of football. Every railbird knows you don’t take your ticket up to the cashier’s window (or throw it in the trash) till the results on the board go from “UNOFFICIAL” to “OFFICIAL.” They’d never pulled down the winner of the Kentucky Derby for a foul before, but it was always a possibility. This was the plot point on which A Billion for Boris, the sequel to the novel Freaky Friday, pivoted, back in 1974: the young protagonists, armed with a TV that magically receives tomorrow’s broadcasts, pile all their sports-wagering winnings into one big bet on the horse they saw win the Derby—without having kept watching long enough to have seen that winner disqualified.
Either way, as the appeal hung in the air, there was no clean call. The track was a mess; the race was a mess. Even in his winner’s interview, when he was still the winner, Maximum Security’s jockey, Luis Saez, mentioned that the horse had been spooked nearly out of control by the crowd noise as he headed toward the stretch. The NBC announcers, filling time with speculation, noted that however he might or might not have affected other the other horses’ results, Maximum Security did come close to setting off a catastrophic pileup. There was a reason, if not a conclusive reason, for the stewards to go ahead and call the foul, out of principle.
The part that was hard to swallow, though, was prior to that. The reason the stewards had to grapple with questions of video reality and the nature of their duty was that someone made them do it. The camera kept returning to the face of Flavien Prat, the jockey of Country House, the unofficial second-place horse. Country House had not been in the jam-up, but he’d finished ahead of all the horses who had been in it, and so Prat had chosen to lodge a complaint. Now the jockey stood there bright-eyed, with a pious smirk creeping over his face, while Country House’s trainer told the TV audience that in a normal race, this should have been a no-doubt disqualification.
Not many events in major sports feel at all comparable to my own firsthand athletic experience. But when I was a junior in high school, I joined the very bad varsity boys’ volleyball team. Our league wasn’t especially good, top to bottom, but we were bad even for the league. In our ninth game of the season, with a record of 0-8, we were in against a team that was plausibly worse than we were, the vocational-technical school, which barely had a sports program at all. At last, our rudimentary bump-set-spike offense was up to the occasion. We were the better team, out in front and headed for victory.
And then we started to choke. Or, specifically, someone started choking us: this one player for Vo-Tech, David, a wiry little guy we’d been in the middle school band with, started just bashing the ball back at us, covering the whole court, singlehandedly wrecking our business. We were tired and tight and fading away, and he was gathering energy. If I recall the sequence of events right, we hung on to get to match point, and David spoiled our serve yet again, and that was when our coach alerted the ref that David had a gold chain flopping around outside his jersey, against the rules. One-point penalty, game and match.
Seeing the tight, gloating face of the second-place jockey, who now can call himself the winning jockey, brought it all back. There wasn’t anything we players could have done about the result, if we’d had the moral fiber to try to do anything, which I didn’t. We skulked out of the Vo-Tech gym with a record of 1-8. The yearbook says we won another game that year, to finish 2-9. The next year’s yearbook says we went an almost-creditable 4-6 the following season. Till I dug out the yearbooks and looked up the team’s records, I had no memory of any of those other wins. All I remembered was the one the ref handed us because our coach was a snitch, making us snitches by extension. We got a win but we didn’t win anything.