Barbara Borden hesitated before she pushed the button. Before sending the signal formally disqualifying Maximum Security from the 2019 Kentucky Derby, the state’s chief steward spun her red swivel chair around to face her fellow officials.
She looked at Brooks “Butch” Becraft and Tyler Picklesimer in the seventh-floor stewards room at Churchill Downs, reminded them there was no turning back, and asked, “Are we sure we want to do this?”
“I said, ‘This is a big thing and it’s probably going to be life-changing,’” Borden recalled. “That was kind of dramatic at the time, I thought, but with some of the events that occurred afterward, it really wasn’t an overstatement.”
It was about then, “to lighten the moment,” she bent over a trash can and pretended to throw up.
For nearly two years following the 145th Derby, Borden’s public comments on the historic disqualification of the first-place finisher had been largely confined to the 103-word statement she reluctantly read to reporters that night and a terse summary in the stewards’ report to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC). But with legal challenges exhausted and threats to her safety having subsided, the 61-year-old agreed to go on the record regarding the first Derby winner to be taken down for interference and the fallout that followed.
She remains confident the decision was correct and appears unshaken by the blowback from critics and angry bettors. The 2021 Derby will be Borden’s 10th as Kentucky’s chief steward, and she has so far shown no interest in an exit strategy.
“I’ve been around the racetrack in one capacity or another for over 40 years,” she said. “You just develop a thick skin.”
Growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, Ohio, Borden was 5 years old when she and her brother David were given a Shetland pony for Christmas. She once aspired to be a jockey, as her brother became, but wound up pursuing a less glamorous but more comprehensive path to her present position.
Certified as a steward in 1993, Borden has also worked as a hot walker, groom, exercise rider, post parade rider, broodmare attendant, license office clerk, test barn sample collector, and identifier, verifying that the tattoo inside a horse’s upper lip matches the code on its registration forms.
“She’s done everything at the racetrack,” said Marc Guilfoil, executive director of the KHRC. “She doesn’t get rattled. She talks with authority and people listen to her. We had 44 résumés (for chief steward) and I strongly recommended her. It was a process. They interviewed a lot of people, and I finally told them, ‘If it doesn’t work out after six months, you can fire her and me both.’ ”
In another life, Barbara Borden might have been a musician. An accomplished clarinetist, she chose the racetrack over New York’s prestigious Juilliard School.
“I really planned to go and I just didn’t go,” she said. “I thought I had a passion for it, and I knew the music business as a professional is really, really cutthroat and really, really difficult. As much as I loved playing the clarinet, I loved the racetrack a little bit more.”
She loves it still, though stewards can count on backlash whenever their rulings rile bettors. With more than $9 million wagered on Maximum Security to win, place or show in the 2019 Derby — to say nothing of exotic wagers — the potential for problems was acute. TwinSpires handicapper Ed DeRosa estimates $121 million of the $132.4 million bet on the race changed hands as a result of the disqualification, and that 100 people bet on Maximum Security for every eight who bet on Country House.
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The only other Derby winner to be disqualified, Dancer’s Image (1968), was penalized for a drug violation, but only after the race was declared official, the bettors had been paid, and decades before social media.
“Churchill got bundles of mail — a lot of it positive, but a lot of it negative and a lot of it with some threatening content, to the point where they put an armed security guard on me for the remainder of the spring meet,” Borden said. “I received mail at my house, at my home address, and some things were threatening: ‘You ruined the Kentucky Derby. I’ll never watch it again. I’m never coming again. You killed it.’ There were expletives in there. It was just nasty.”
In phone calls that sometimes lasted until 2 a.m., Guilfoil urged Borden to alert the police to the threats, but she declined.
“I had my neighbors on Neighborhood Watch watch my back,” she said. “I guess I didn’t think anyone would do anything. Still, that they had my home address was unsettling to say the least.”
After being escorted to the parking lot following Derby 145, Borden remembers seeing the security guard slowly back away as she started her car, as if fearful it might explode.
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She had met briefly with the media that night at the urging of Kevin Flanery, then-president of Churchill Downs, but declined to answer questions while conveying the comfort level, she now admits, of a “hostage video.” If this approach undermined confidence in the stewards’ decision, as had their failure to light the “inquiry” sign on the track’s tote board, that risk was calculated.
“Within probably 30 seconds of making the race official, we received a phone call from the connections of (Maximum Security), asking about the appeal process, which made us start talking among ourselves,” Borden said. “Churchill asked us to have a press conference. We made the decision, the three of us, that it was probably most appropriate not to answer questions knowing that we were likely to face a legal challenge.”
The three stewards rotate responsibilities. Becraft and Picklesimer watched Derby 145 through binoculars from a balcony adjoining the small office where Borden followed the race on multiple monitors. After Maximum Security crossed the finish line first, Borden told her colleagues she had seen something deserving of further scrutiny on the final turn.
“I watched the two views that we normally watch when we’re reviewing a race: the head-on and the pan shot together,” Borden said. “I did see something happen in the turn, not conclusive at all, but noticed some horses, a couple of horses, checking in the turn. Our other two stewards watching on the balcony, when they both came in, it appeared that they hadn’t seen anything live through their binoculars. I have a way better view because of the monitors.”
Unlike standard practices in other jurisdictions, Kentucky stewards typically review the replay of an entire race before making its result official. This time, though, that review would span nearly 22 minutes and include interviews with three jockeys before Maximum Security was disqualified and Country House draped with the garland of roses.
Shortly after the stewards began studying video, they received a radio transmission from outrider Lee Lockwood, notifying them of an objection lodged by Country House’s jockey, Flavien Prat. As the review continued, a call came in with word of a second objection, this one from Long Range Toddy’s rider, Jon Court.
Because of its large field — 19 horses on this day — the Derby often entails a turbulent trip through congested traffic. But though contact is common, formal complaints have been few. The Kentucky Derby media guide lists only five claims of foul and one race-related disqualification prior to the 2019 race. The previous foul claim was in 2001. The previous disqualification, in 1984, involved two horses that did not place.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a six-time Derby winner, texted Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden after Derby 145 to suggest the jockeys’ objections were overblown.
“No one ever calls an objection in the Derby,” Baffert wrote. “It’s always a roughly run race. … I have been wiped out numerous times, but that is the Derby.”
Baffert was not alone in dissenting from the decision — “Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur,” President Trump tweeted — although Baffert’s objectivity could have been compromised by his long association with Maximum Security’s owners, Gary and Mary West. (After trainer Jason Servis was indicted in 2020 in a federal case involving performance-enhancing drugs, Maximum Security was moved to Baffert’s barn.)
Still, if there was a general consensus among horsemen and industry experts, it was that the interference in Derby 145 was both blatant and dangerous.
“By the rule book, it’s the right call,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “There is no question he veered out and interfered with a couple of horses.”
“I was looking at the pictures and they were pretty incriminating,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. “To see the pictures, I can’t doubt what happened. We got lucky that it wasn’t worse.”
War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse, likened the race to following a drunken driver and said Maximum Security’s swerve had put the lives of other horses and their riders in peril. While awaiting the stewards’ verdict, Country House trainer Bill Mott said if it had been a weekday maiden claiming race rather than the Derby, there would have been no doubt about the decision.
Some of the delay was due to the stewards watching the race from the five camera angles Churchill Downs provided; some to determining the appropriate order of finish after the decision was made to take down Maximum Security.
“As we reviewed (the five videos) together, we saw from the backstretch camera the shot we were looking for; the shot that really showed the interference and how it occurred,” Borden said. “It helped us to see where the interference actually started, and that was with Maximum Security coming off the fence and out into the path of several horses that had to check.
“The rule says that a horse that is in the lead has the right to be anywhere on the track as long as he doesn’t interfere with, impede or intimidate other horses. The fact that (Maximum Security) was slightly in front is kind of debatable cause as they go around the turn there were horses right to his outside. Him veering out into the path of several horses that were forced to check violates that rule. We knew then we had interference. Then the judgment part comes in: What to do about it.”
Maximum Security was ultimately dropped from first to 17th place, behind the last horse he was deemed to have bothered, Long Range Toddy. Jockey Luis Saez subsequently served a 15-day suspension for careless riding.
Though Gary and Mary West attempted to reverse the disqualification through the KHRC, U.S. District Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, their efforts were effectively doomed by a Kentucky law that says stewards are responsible for “all findings of fact as to all matters occurring during and incident to the running of a race,” and “findings of fact and determination shall be final and not subject to appeal.”
“I guess we feel some vindication that we were upheld,” Borden said. “We followed our regulations as they were written and were upheld in court. It was a decision that had to be made and that stuck…
“I knew when I took this job that it was going to be stressful at times. It was a little more than I expected, the fallout, but it didn’t deter me at all from wanting to come back. The first time we walked back in this (stewards) room after that happened was several days later. It was a little weird to walk in here, but it didn’t deter me at all. We did our job. As much as we didn’t come in here looking to do that that day, we did our jobs and we were proud of that.”
In a concession to transparency, Kentucky stewards have since started explaining the reasons behind disqualifications over tracks’ public address systems.
“It seems to be a crowd-pleaser,” Borden said. “Not sure if it has changed anyone’s opinion that is holding a losing ticket when we go official, but a good thing nonetheless.”