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.