• Maximum Security's disqualification might have been controversial given where it occurred, but the biggest stages in sports shouldn't alter the rulebook or decide when to implement it.
By Michael Rosenberg
May 06, 2019

I know less about horse racing than many humans, most horses, and possibly even a few cows. But something about this year’s Kentucky Derby felt familiar. It wasn’t the race, exactly, or the controversial disqualification of Maximum Security. It was this line of thinking: sure, the rules say Maximum Security should have been disqualified for committing a foul, but not in the Kentucky Derby.

You see this kind of logic in a lot of sports: the bigger the moment, the less the rules should count. We need to take that line of thinking, pour lighter fluid all over it and set it on fire.

The rules are the rules, and we should enforce them the same way in every professional game or event. This was always true, but it is especially true now, with a million super high-definition, up-close replays in every sport. We scream when a ref doesn’t see a shoelace go out of bounds. We overturn calls when a ball wobbles an eighth of an inch or a basketball grazes a fingernail. How can we suddenly decide the rules shouldn’t all be enforced when a championship is on the line?

As Country House trainer Bill Mott said after the Derby, “If this was a maiden claimer on a weekday, that horse [Maximum Security] would come down. It’s the Kentucky Derby, but it’s not supposed to matter.” Yes, of course, Mott literally had a horse in the race. But the logic is impeccable.

If your argument is that Maximum Security did not commit a foul, that’s fine. (I defer to my man Tim Layden to analyze that one.) But if you say the stewards should have let it slide because "hey, it’s the Kentucky Derby" and people got drunk and bet a lot of money and thought the race was over, that’s where you lose me.

I wish Maximum Security’s connections would take a lesson in sportsmanship from Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. (Yeah, I know: an unlikely choice.) Last month, Auburn lost a Final Four game to Virginia after a controversial foul was called with no time left. It was close. But it was a foul. And Pearl said afterward:

“My advice, as an administrator of the game, is if that's a foul, call it. Call it at the beginning of the game, call it in the middle of the game, call it at the end of the game. Don't call it any more or less at any other time during the game.”

We should really all agree on this by now. NHL refs should not “swallow their whistles” in playoff overtimes. NBA refs should not let hacking go uncalled to “let the players decide" the game. NFL officials should not ignore holding or facemask penalties or the four thousand other penalties they call. And stewards should not ignore a foul because Maximum Security was the “best horse” and “deserved” to win.

If we change how we enforce the rules when a championship is on the line, we create several problems. It’s not fair to the competitors: they play and practice and prepare all year for games that are played under very specific guidelines. It’s also not fair to the officials, who prepare all year to enforce those very specific guidelines, and cannot reasonably be expected to change how they operate when the most people are watching.

Also: asking officials to change rules enforcement at their will invites corruption. Officials are supposed to make judgment calls based on whether rules were broken, not based on who “deserved” to win. The integrity of the games depends on officials not making judgments like that.

Would Country House have won the race if Maximum Security had stayed in his own path? My opinion as a guy who knows very little is: probably not. But that’s not the stewards’ problem. They are supposed to enforce the rules.

The rules are the rules whenever the games are played. Sometimes the rules do change when the stakes are higher, for obvious reasons. The NHL, for example, does not stage 3-on-3 overtime sessions in the playoffs like it does in the regular season. NFL playoff games cannot end in a tie after one overtime. But the penalties remain the same. All we should ask of any official is to try to be fair. That means trying to get all the calls right, all the time, no matter what’s on the line.

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