On Saturday, for the first time in Kentucky Derby history, the winning horse was disqualified. In 145 years of uninterrupted races at Churchill Downs, there has never been a disqualification of an apparent winner.
In a crowded field of 19 horses on a muddy track day, Maximum Security ran the 1 1/4 mile race in 2:03.94 to win, only to have its win contested and overruled by judges minutes later.
The painful overruling was by no means instantaneous as the “instant replay” took more than 20 minutes to unfold. Attendees in the stands could be heard loudly booing the decision and the controversial ruling has put a cloud over the Kentucky Derby’s future.
The controversy that’s resulted from Maximum Security’s disqualification has continued over the weekend and continues to hurt the Kentucky Derby’s brand.
Woodford Reserve’s parent company Brown-Forman Corp was the event’s main sponsor. Brown-Forman was undoubtedly interested in increasing the value of their popular liquor’s brand by connecting it with the event.
The Kentucky Derby is widely celebrated by affluent audiences and garners positive attention, but Saturday’s controversial disqualification of Maximum Security didn’t give fans what they were looking for.
Brown-Forman took over Yum Brands presenting sponsorship role and signed a 5-year deal with the Kentucky Derby in October of 2017. Analysts estimate the company spent between one and two million to sponsor this year’s event.
But what Brown-Forman got for that investment was attaching their popular liquor brand to the negative emotions Derby fans felt afterward.
People attend and watch the Kentucky Derby to celebrate. They care less about who wins and more about celebrating themselves. A Kentucky Derby race is a chance for attendees and viewers to celebrate their own success. Attendees relax in a seated indoor picnic and the event is defined by high-end style, ridiculous outfits, flowing money and alcohol with it.
The Derby isn’t meant to be a serious outing for most attendees, despite how seriously many involved with the race take it, which is why when Maximum Security was disqualified on Saturday the Kentucky Derby’s magic spell over its audience was broken.
The escapism that normally floods the air at Churchill Downs was replaced with a hard and painful crash of reality.
The wind was taken out everyone’s sails. The apparent winner Maximum Security lost, crushing the emotion of the winners, and the newly awarded winner Country House won with an everlasting asterisk over its name.
But most of all Kentucky Derby lost. Because the excitement that fuels its business faded away during the painful wait for a ruling from its “instant replay”.
Next year, the Kentucky Derby can expect less excitement, fewer sales, and less money offered from its sponsors.