Column: ‘Emotional torture’ of Gary and Mary West’s fleeting 2019 Kentucky Derby win lingers

Rancho Santa Fe’s Gary West is the owner of short-lived Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security.
Rancho Santa Fe’s Gary West is the owner of short-lived Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security.
(Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rancho Santa Fe owners return to Derby for first time since controversial ruling erased Maximum Security’s win


The sting might lessen, but the agonizing ache surely never goes away. There are frustrating things in sports. Unexpected things. Shocking things. In the moment, seemingly universe-altering things.

What happened at soupy Churchill Downs on May 4, 2019, with 150,729 paralyzed in place, transcended the Mike Tyson-level gut punches, emotional heart-mangling and flabbergasting finishes competition sinisterly dares to deliver.

As Gary and Mary West of Rancho Santa Fe waited 22 minutes to learn if their horse Maximum Security had won the Kentucky Derby after a pair of jockey objections — a wrenching eternity in racing, let alone in its most globally significant race — the minutes crawled.

This was a never-in-almost-a-century-and-a-half thing. This was a jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing conga line of events too ludicrous for even the most brazen Hollywood script scribblers.

The whole of it amounted to cruelty.

As stewards peered over replays, focusing on Maximum Security’s path along the far turn, the famed roses already had been handed to Mary West. When the horse was “taken down” in racing parlance, stunning and unprecedented dominoes followed.

Three other horses deemed to have been impacted caused Maximum Security to tumble behind the last of those in 17th. Country House, the second-place finisher at 65-1 odds, became the rose’s new landing spot.

“The Wests were standing right in front of me,” said Darren Rogers, the track’s senior director of communications. “I just reached out my arms and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Mrs. West immediately handed the roses to me. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my professional career. I felt awful for them.

“They were just silent. I think they were shook to their core.”

Four years later, the Wests quietly have returned to racing’s most holy cathedral. They’re also revisiting the scene of the most infamous day in the Derby’s 148 runnings.

Hit Show, a $404,375 earner who has won three of five career races, broke into the Derby field. The Wests and trainer Brad Cox drew the dreaded inside post and confidence-sapping 30-1 odds. The last horse to win the Derby from that cramped location was Ferdinand, 37 years ago.

Cruelty, again? Or do the circumstances maximize the potential absurdity of an implausible storyline after the emotional wreckage of 2019?

“I’m not a real big guy on posts,” Cox said. “Good horses overcome things. … He’s one of the few horses in the race that’s had two races at a mile and an eighth. He showed up. He’s a nose from being 2-for-2 this year. We’ll see what happens.”

Gary West politely declined to speak, texting that he has received more than 50 interview requests and prefers “to have a quiet weekend at the races.” That makes sense, considering the roller-coaster ride of Maximum Security became rock-concert loud.

The noise was only beginning.

Trainer Jason Servis became entangled in a doping investigation and was indicted. The Wests appealed to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and filed a federal lawsuit. A “Today” show appearance fueled a war of words with Churchill Downs as Gary West labeled the track as greedy and argued it puts lives at risk with massive Derby fields. Later, Maximum Security won the money-soaked Saudi Cup, but the $10 million purse was withheld — despite the horse passing every drug test in his career.

The Wests have been generous, philanthropic billionaires advocating for senior health care, while threatening big pharma as trailblazing champions of affordable generic drugs. Two minutes on a racetrack thrust them into an incredibly awkward spotlight.

“They’ve contributed a lot to our game, spent a lot of money and had a lot of success,” NBC racing analyst Jerry Bailey said. “People who do that put money in our game; I root for them. But it was pretty obvious after several minutes that Maximum Security came out a long way. Just in a couple strides, but he definitely interfered. I’ve seen some stuff in the Derby and no action taken, so I wasn’t convinced action would be taken. But there was a reason for it if they did.

“I felt really bad for everybody involved. If they won (with Hit Show), it would be a tale of two completely opposite stories.”

Cox, the trainer, has found himself dead center in take-and-taketh-away positions after major races. Kentucky Derby winner Mandaloun moved to first in the 2021 Haskell Stakes after the disqualification of Hot Rod Charlie, partly owned by Del Mar resident Bill Strauss.

In the 2018 Cotillion Stakes, Cox’s Monomoy Girl was bounced to the benefit of Midnight Bisou.

“Yes, I’ve been DQ’d in a Grade I million-dollar race,” Cox said. “It’s very frustrating. There’s nothing you can do. And to do this every day with the goal of winning the Kentucky Derby, and you think you’ve won it, that would be emotional torture.

“It would be a cool story if Mr. West was able to get back there and get the job done.”

Has West ever brought up the 2019 Derby to Cox?

“No,” he said. “Never.”

Can you blame him?