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Confessions of a Kentucky Derby Calamity

by Jeremy Plonk

May 6, 2019

Ain’t the grapes sour? Indeed. Two days later, they taste as awful as they did after 7 p.m. Saturday when the stewards took down the number of Maximum Security for the first time in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby. 

I’m not the unbiased person to write your “DQ justification” story. I lost five figures in potential winnings when the 7-20-13 finish was switched to 20-13-8. Gone were stacks of exactas and trifectas, literally ‘stacks’ in winnings as we like to say around the track. The biggest haul of a nearly 40-year wagering career all evaporated in 22 excruciating minutes. 

In as much as I can find humor in it, it’s funny how the stages of grief apply here even if it’s absolutely nowhere nearly as important as the good doctor’s checkup that I just left at 8 a.m. this morning. Note to self: Don’t schedule doctor visits for the Monday morning after the Kentucky Derby ever again. Blood pressure was perfect, however … somehow?! 

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the well-known psychological roadmaps of grief. Over the 22-minute ordeal and the 48 hours since, I’ve traversed most of the path. 

Denial. Shortly after celebratory texts with friends during the gallop-out, the realization that an objection was in place set in. Multiple folks texted to tell me not to worry about it; it’s the Derby, they’re NEVER taking a horse down in this race. Until now, they hadn’t, so why would I worry? You’re right; there’s no way he’s coming down. I’m safe even if my heart is racing faster than the 2:03.93 on the teletimer. 

Anger. Are you *!&%$#@ kidding me? Upon seeing the disqualification, there was initial anger alright. I felt then, as I do now, that a foul had occurred, but fouls have occurred in every Kentucky Derby numbers 1 through 144. Why would this one come down? 

Bargaining. If this had been Bob Baffert’s horse for the Wests and not Jason Servis, the result would have stood. That I firmly believe. In fact, in my bargaining stage, I turned to Twitter and posed the same bargaining tool to followers. A convincing 69 percent of the respondents agreed. Another reason for the DQ – again not because there was or wasn’t a foul (there was), but the adjudication and penalty for the foul – is timing. Horse safety is at the fore like never before in the public eye because of the horse deaths at Santa Anita this winter. For the stewards to say “boys will be boys” and “let them play” by leaving the result stand would send the message that anything goes on the racetrack, even at the risk of the equines and jockeys. I’ve read that the stewards did the hard thing by taking down Maximum Security. Maybe so in terms of their relationship with bettors. But in the public perception, erring on the side of safety absolutely was the safest call in today’s environment. I had to bargain with myself between these two points as part of the Derby result and how it impacted me personally. Maybe they’re not even reality, but they are my perceived reality. And they might be shared by thousands of other bettors and horse racing fans. I would trade (bargain) the well-being of the thousands working in the racing industry if it’s really on the brink of disaster, as we’re being led to believe despite record handle and TV ratings, in exchange for my winning ticket. I’d be a worse person if I wouldn’t, right? 

Depression. Still, I’m not in a very good mood 48 hours later. It’s not about the money, though that stings. I’m fortunate to have done well from humble beginnings and am owed absolutely nothing by anyone. My dad – who incidentally cashed on the DQ by betting Country House (as did my brother…good work, fellas) – taught me a lesson years ago: “It’s not yours until you can touch it.” It’s a step up from “Don’t count your chickens…” but it has served me well. Of course, that gets trickier in this ADW world, which means you might want to make some withdraws and actually rub your cash from time to time. It’s one of the reasons why on big days I also like to make bets at my local harness track in addition to with Xpressbet. There’s a glorious feeling of seeing the stacks and being able to touch what’s yours. We’ll have to wait for another day on that one. When I say my bad mood goes beyond the money, it reflects a feeling that the Kentucky Derby once had the power to cleanse my palate of everything. No matter how much I was frustrated with the industry in which I’ve given my professional life; no matter what my mood was with things going on at home or in my personal life; the first Saturday in May had the power to make me feel above it all. I literally broke down crying on the NBC TV set where I was working when Cathryn Sophia won the 2016 Kentucky Oaks just a few weeks after my mother had passed away. She, being Catherine, and my daughter being Sophia, there was a sense that I was supposed to be there that day. I haven’t returned to Louisville since, after being there 18 times for the Kentucky Derby. I felt good about that being the last feeling I wanted to have there. Now I’m wondering how I will feel about betting the Kentucky Derby in the future, and if the Derby can cleanse my palate of how I’m feeling like it once did annually. That is a far more sobering feeling than not collecting the biggest score of your life. 

Acceptance. I don’t know where I’m at on that. I’ve accepted the obvious loss as reality. I’m an over-thinker often times, but I’m not an idiot. There’s no appeal; it’s a done deal. Psychologists say this stage isn’t about being okay with what’s happened, but being cognizant with the fact that we can’t preserve the past as it was and that things have changed and we must adjust. By next year’s first Saturday in May, we’ll see where I stand on the game’s grandest race. It’s given me a lot in my lifetime; this time it gave me feelings I didn’t expect or want to repeat.