Maximum Security Comes Up Short

The Sixth Circuit says neigh to the horse owners' challenge to the Kentucky Derby's disqualification of their horse.


Horse races should be decided on the track, not in court. That's one way to read the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in West v. Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a challenge to the decision to effectively disqualify Maximum Security from the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that that horse was the first to cross the finish line.

Judge Bush's opinion for the court begins:

"Whether true or perceived to be true, a referee's calls can 'change the outcome of [a] game.'" Higgins v. Ky. Sports Radio, LLC, 951 F.3d 728, 735 (6th Cir. 2020) (citation omitted). As is true for Kentucky basketball, the same is true for Kentucky horse racing. At issue here is a call made by racing stewards that changed the outcome in the most storied race of them all—the Kentucky Derby.

In 144 uninterrupted years of Runs for the Roses, only one horse to cross the finish line first had been disqualified, and no winning horse had ever been disqualified for misconduct during the race itself. But, on the first Saturday in May 2019, fans were told to hold onto their tickets at the conclusion of the 145th Derby. "Maximum Security," the horse that had finished first, would not be declared the winner. Instead, he would come in last, thanks to the stewards' call that Maximum Security committed fouls by impeding the progress of other horses in the race.

As a result of this ruling, Maximum Security's owners, Gary and Mary West, were not awarded the Derby Trophy, an approximate $1.5 million purse, and potentially even far greater financial benefits from owning a stallion that won the Derby. So, the Wests filed this civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the individual stewards who made the controversial call, the individual members of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and the Commission itself. The complaint alleged that the stewards' decision was arbitrary and capricious, was not supported by substantial evidence, and violated the Wests' right to procedural due process. The Wests also claimed that the regulation that gave the stewards authority to disqualify Maximum Security is unconstitutionally vague. They sought, among other things, a declaration from the district court that Maximum Security was the official winner of the 145th Kentucky Derby.

The district court dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim. It determined that the stewards' decision was not reviewable under Kentucky law, that the Wests had no property interest in the prize winnings, and that the challenged regulation is not unconstitutionally vague. For the reasons discussed below, we agree and AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

Judges Batchelder and Larsen joined Judge Bush's opinion.

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  1. IANAL and it probably means something different to lawyers, but to say the horse owners has no property interest in the $1.5M prize they would have won seems similar to the orphan complaining he has no parents (because he killed them). If they had won, they would have a property interest, but as they had lost, they had never won, thus never had a property interest. I suppose they had a potential property interest, but that’s probably a different legal term.

    Just amuses me. Not trying to insult lawyers or judges!

    1. In this case, the judges at the track probably were not lawyers, just as basketball officials are usually not lawyers. But they are judges nonetheless. And their job is call them as they see them, and know the rules. As you say, don’t insult the judges. In basketball it’s usually not a good idea to argue to much with the officials.

      1. My comment was referring only to the phrase “no property interest”.

        1. Let’s say the government sponsors a municipal softball tournament with a $5,000 cash prize. On the final play of the final game, there is a throw to the plate to throw out the tying run. The umpire calls the player out at the plate, ending the game. The umpires conference and uphold the call.

          The play is captured on a cell phone camera. It shows that the umpire got it wrong, the player was clearly safe. (This part, by the way, differs from the Kentucky Derby- Maximum Security fouled the heck out of three horses and the disqualification was easy.)

          The losing team sues, and contends they have a property interest in the $5,000 prize. It seems to me they lose. The umpire made a call. Your property interest isn’t created by whether the player actually crossed the plate; it at least cannot be created until the umpire makes a final decision. It literally doesn’t matter if the umpire is right; you don’t have a property interest in the “true” outcome, only in whatever the officials decide.

          1. That’s certainly the attitude you’d expect a judge to take, anyway, for reasons of personal self interest.

            1. “Yesterday, it mightabeen a ball. Tomorrow, it mightabeen a ball. But today, it’s a strike!”

    2. Winning the Kentucky Derby increases the winning colt’s stud fee, at least until the stallion’s progeny don’t perform on the track. It may not matter to Max, as he’s crossed the finish line first in all but one race. In other Max notes, the Saudis are deciding whether to disqualify him from his win in the inaugural Saudi Cup because his trainer was indicted on federal charges related to giving his horses banned substances. The indictment said the trainer gave illegal substances to all of his horses including Max. The Saudis say if that’s proved, Max will be DQd, and he’ll lose the $10-million winner’s purse.

  2. [Judge, to Maximum Security (MS), in court]: “Speak up, I can barely hear your voice.”
    MS: Sorry your honor. I’m a little horse today.
    Judge: Hurry up and get to your mane argument.
    MS. I didn’t like that filly’s testimony. Canter testimony be thrown out?
    Judge: Hmm. That’s not a hoof-bad argument. Not bad at all. But my advice to both sides: If you want to win; place your drawings in the correct order. If you don’t tail-or your evidence, I won’t examine it furlong before I give up.
    Judge: Finally, to both parties; I’ve done some research and no, it is not hate speech or fighting words when one of your horses is speaking with your handlers/trainers, and someone else refers to them as nicker-lovers. That’s constitutionally-protected speech.

    The jokes. They write themselves.

    1. If you read the opinion, it’s full of horse racing and sports references.

      1. I had not. But I will now.

  3. Sounds like a good ruling.

    I don’t race horses, but I race sailboats, and the ISAF Racing Rules of Sailing are quite explicit, right there in Rule #3

    3.3 Acceptance of the rules includes agreement
    (a) to be governed by the rules;
    (b) to accept the penalties imposed and other action taken under the rules, subject to the appeal and review procedures provided in them, as the final determination of any matter arising under the rules;
    (c) with respect to any such determination, not to resort to any court of law or tribunal not provided for in the rules;

    I don’t know if horse racing has similar provisions, but if they don’t they should.

    1. It’s a little different because some rulings in horse racing can be challenged. For instance, if a trainer is suspended based on positive drug tests, there are potential routes of appeal.

      But the Kentucky statute (and a number of other states cited in the opinion) make disqualifications for in-race fouls un-appealable. And that’s the right rule.

  4. I’m wondering if this was a pro-forma lawsuit, in that they now have a documented claim that their horse actually won. And for a lot of rich people, “bragging rights” are valuable as well.

    I’m guessing that the real money is in stud fees, and wouldn’t this case give them legal documentation that their horse physically finished first?

    1. Indeed, for purposes of stud fees, it probably only matters that the horse actually finished first, and who got the trophy shouldn’t matter.

      The trophy isn’t passed on genetically, but the speed is.

      1. Well, horse racing clearly feels he “won” in the sense that he is seen as a more legitimate horse than Country House, who was put up to first.

        But the suit didn’t help them at all in that regard. The foul was never adjudicated (and the dirty little secret is that had the merits been reached, the foul was completely obvious).

        This suit was about whining owners who hated that their horse got taken down and they didn’t get the chance to be recognized as Derby winners.

  5. Lawsuits like this make me think that maybe those guillotine-toting Antifarians are not 100% wrong.

  6. The way judges can arrogate to themselves the right to rule entire school districts like a personal fiefdom but refuse to ever intervene in adjudicating the outcome of sporting events is extremely strange. Both cases are constitutional abominations and yet…

  7. The trophy isn’t passed on genetically, but the speed is.
    Brett, not necessarily. Some mediocre race harses manages to have successful progeny while some great racers did not. Secretariat was great almost beyond measure, his progeny not so much.

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