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Fascinating Flukish

The Flukish, Fascinating Rise—and Sudden Disappearance—of the 2019 Kentucky Derby Champion – Sports Illustrated

When Larry Roth returned to his Long Island home last May, from Louisville, he unpacked a pair of muddy boots and declared he would never clean them again. He and his family had bought cheap ponchos and galoshes at a Walmart the night before the Kentucky Derby, bracing for a sloppy Saturday at Churchill Downs. And the rains came as expected, soaking the masses in their finery, rendering the track a gooey mess. “It was a miserable day,” says Roth.

But when the 65-to-1 long shot colt that Roth co-owned, Country House, was named the most controversial winner in the 145-year history of the Derby, that mud took on a magical quality. The dirt-caked boots were going to be Roth’s prized souvenir from a day unlike any other in the annals of America’s greatest horse race.

Then his housekeeper saw them. And made the unilateral decision to wash them. The cherished Churchill soil was gone in an instant. Frustrating but fitting, given what would become of Country House’s career.

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After 125 seconds of racing last May 4, then a 22-minute delay for a steward’s ruling that elevated the runner-up colt to first and disqualified Maximum Security, a garland of roses was laid across Country House’s shoulders. Then the winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby all but disappeared.

He’d come up out of nowhere to win the Derby, then promptly returned there. Country House never ran another step. “That was it, his run through the [Churchill] stretch,” says the horse’s trainer, Bill Mott. “But that was a good one.”

Given the stunning nature of Country House’s victory, at the second-highest odds ever (behind only Donerail at 91-1, in 1913), and the postponement of this year’s race to Sept. 5, he has acquired a unique historical niche. One of the least accomplished of the race’s 145 winners will also be the longest reigning champion.

“Who wore the roses longest?” chuckles Ed Bowen, retired racing historian for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. “The horse that didn’t win, of course.”

Country House, down the stretch, fourth from the left up front.

Country House, down the stretch, fourth from the left up front.

***

The last time the public got a look at Country House was on the morning after his Derby triumph, when controversy still raged about the outcome. A groom brought him out of Mott’s Barn 19, on the Churchill backside, for the traditional photo op, and he looked fine. There was no indication he was about to vanish from the racing radar.

Mott was busy that morning defending his colt as a worthy champion to a large cluster of reporters. The postrace raging from Maximum Security owner Gary West was just starting, and it would not stop until he filed a lawsuit (likely futile, but ongoing) disputing the result. West didn’t have much to stand on, but he had the support of racing types who believe in a sort of unspoken dictum that the Kentucky Derby is too sacrosanct to be sullied by a foul claim.

That runs up against the reality that Maximum Security clearly did commit a racing foul. Replays show Luis Saez’s mount, while on the lead rounding the far turn, veering out into the path of other horses. That caused War of Will and Long Range Toddy to check sharply, avoiding a potentially catastrophic spill. Maximum Security was never bothered and drew off in the stretch for a front-running win that would not stand up.

That left runner-up Country House—who had arrived in Louisville as the winner of just one low-profile race in six lifetime starts—as the stunning champion. The majority of the betting public was furious. Even Mott admitted he came away feeling a bit empty after the first Derby win of his Hall of Fame career. “If ever there was a guy more anxious to win his second Derby than his first,” says Bowen, “it’s Bill Mott.”

On that morning after the strangest of all Derbies, the questions for Mott inevitably turned to what was next for Country House. The answer is always the same for a winner—on to Baltimore for the Preakness, the second leg of the horse racing Triple Crown. But there was a notable lack of enthusiasm from Country House’s camp for following the traditional path.

“Having the Derby winner, you’re pretty much forced to go to the Preakness,” Mott said at the time. A year later, some involved say that was the plan. Others suggest Baltimore wasn’t in the strategy. “We were looking forward to the Belmont Stakes,” the third leg, says Roth. “We were going to skip the Preakness, no matter what.”

Ultimately, those plans mattered little. According to Mott, Country House developed a fever the day after the Derby. By the next morning, the colt was coughing badly enough to take him off the Preakness trail.

Speculation rippled that this illness was a classic racing dodge. Fluke Derby winner wants no part of a race he’s not suited to win just two weeks later. But Country House’s removal from the Preakness did at least come with a doctor’s note. He was shipped from Churchill Downs, 75 miles east to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, where he was put on antibiotics and seemed to recover well. That hospital visit killed any hopes of entering the Belmont—a 1 1/2–mile race that seemed to suit Country House’s running style—but by the time the Preakness was run, the horse was healthy enough, at least, to return to Mott’s barn at Churchill Downs.

The plan was to get him back into daily training, starting with light jogging and progressing toward full workouts in anticipation of a summer racing schedule. But back out on the track, Country House didn’t respond. “He didn’t want to train,” says Jaime Roth, Larry’s daughter and the most plugged-in member of the family racing operation. And that was a departure from normal.

“He was very stiff,” says Mott. “Pretty well jammed up.”

Further exams showed leg swelling and bone bruising, and Country House was taken out of training altogether. He went to Blackwood Stables in Midway, Ky., an idyllic farm in the heart of the rolling bluegrass horse country, home base for his majority owner, Guinness McFadden.

After a return visit to Rood and Riddle, Country House’s condition took a turn for the worse. Laminitis, a painful hoof ailment that can prove fatal for animals that spend the vast majority of their time on their feet, set in. (Laminitis killed Secretariat at age 19, and it led to the demise of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro after a leg fracture.)

During that time, McFadden suggested that Jaime Roth stop by the farm to give her ailing Derby winner a few carrots, and Roth took that as a signal it was time to “say goodbye.” McFadden, though, says he didn’t mean it that way. “I was far more optimistic—maybe naive,” he says. “Fortunately, [Country House] was a very, very good patient. We put him through a lot.”

That entire drama unfolded outside the public view, in part because the horse’s owners kept it quiet but also because Country House carried so little cachet coming out of the Derby. He didn’t cross the finish line first and didn’t run in another Triple Crown race—didn’t run again, period. Not so much as a registered workout or a serious morning gallop. Country House just … went away. When it was announced this past Valentine’s Day that he was being retired, it was a jarring reminder that he’d ever existed.

Today, the 4-year-old is frolicking, in good health, around the fields at Blackwood Stables. Eventually he will begin stallion duties. His breeding marketability—where the real money resides in the thoroughbred industry—will be interesting. Carrying the label “Kentucky Derby champion” is big, but will Country House really be considered in such a light? Or will that highlight on his résumé carry an asterisk? Will he be viewed as a runner-up who did nothing of note before that race and absolutely nothing after?

Country House in repose, at Blackwood Stables.

Country House in repose, at Blackwood Stables.

“History surely will judge him as one of the worst Derby winners ever, at least in the modern era, and that’s probably deserved,” says Daily Racing Form writer Marty McGee, who has attended every Kentucky Derby since 1973. “Through no fault of his own, he never got an opportunity to validate what will always be widely regarded as a fluke.”

A fluke to many. The thrill of a lifetime for those involved.

***

Guinness McFadden had lived in Kentucky and been part of the thoroughbred industry for years, but he’d never attended the Derby until last May. “It’s like Mike Golic said about the Super Bowl,” McFadden says. “I’m not going unless I’m playing in it.”

Even as a Derby virgin, McFadden knew enough about the logistical challenges of an event attended by 150,000 people to have an exit plan in mind. Once the race is over, he told his wife, Lisa, we’re hitting the Churchill Downs exits immediately to beat the rush. They would make the 70-minute drive back to Midway as quickly as possible.

That escape plan belied a confidence that McFadden and the rest of the ownership group say they felt going into the race. They were cautiously optimistic about Country House’s chances of hitting the board, although those hopes took a hit when he drew the far outside post in the starting gate, No. 20 out of 20. That, plus the colt’s underwhelming record in Derby prep races, led Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia to make Country House a 30-to-1 choice in the morning line. Only two horses in the field opened at longer odds.

Morning after morning, Mott had gone on horseback to the Churchill backstretch and watched his two Derby entrants train—Tacitus, winner one month earlier of the Wood Memorial, and Country House, winner of nothing substantial. After those a.m. workouts, he consistently referred to Country House as a “hard-knocking horse,” which came across as muted praise. Tacitus, a gray colt who moved with grace, was unmistakably the big horse in the Mott barn. “I remember watching Tacitus come by, long stride, big extension, covering a lot of ground,” Mott says. “Of the two, Tacitus was more impressive to watch.”

It had taken an unusual Mott maneuver just to get Country House in the Derby field. After finishing second that February in the Risen Star Stakes and fourth in the Louisiana Derby, in March, he didn’t have enough qualifying points to make the race. Famously conservative with his horses when it comes to spacing their runs, here he entered Country House in the Arkansas Derby, just three weeks after Louisiana. And it paid off. Country House came in a distant third, well in arrears of 3-year-old headliner Omaha Beach and the Bob Baffert–trained Improbable, but he earned enough points to punch his Derby ticket.

Which is how Country House arrived in Louisville with just one career win, in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park that January. In his past-performance charts, which chronicle a horse’s positioning in every part of a race, Country House had been in first place just twice in 30 career calls—the final two of that maiden race, when he took the lead in the stretch. He was a closer who routinely trailed the pack and routinely failed to close fast enough to win.

Country House was known as a closer who routinely trailed the pack. At the Derby he started in the middle.

Country House was known as a closer who routinely trailed the pack. At the Derby he started in the middle.

McFadden and the Roths hoped the added distance of the Derby would play to their horse’s benefit. At 1 1/4 miles, it’s the longest any 3-year-old will have run to that point of their career, and their horse had shown the ability to keep going when others faded. He may have dawdled early in every race, but he was always running late.

Few, though, shared this view. On Derby day, Country House’s odds moved to 40-to-1, then 65-to-1 at post time. He went off as the second-longest shot in the race. His owners watched the odds, meanwhile, and grew offended, urging their friends to bet the colt. Says McFadden: “I thought he couldn’t be more than 25-to-1.”

In his third-floor box overlooking the Churchill stretch, McFadden avoided the temptations of the Derby bacchanal. This is not a sober event, and the party customarily extends to ownership groups. Some legendary drunks have wound up in the winner’s circle. “I normally have a few drinks at the racetrack,” McFadden says, “but I didn’t that day, just in case. I didn’t want to sound too stupid if someone put a microphone in front of me.”

Circumspect as he may have been, the escape plan remained. When the race is over, hightail it out of here.

That plan went to hell in two minutes.

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***

After the gates burst open and the field was let loose to the roars of masses, Country House quickly established that this would not be his usual race. For once, he wasn’t dawdling at the back of the pack. He was in the middle, moving comfortably underneath jockey Flavien Prat. Mott says this was less the result of Prat’s urging and more the fact that “the horse took him there. We didn’t expect him to be that close, but he broke well and was moving well over a soupy track.” Country House was fully engaged and ready for the performance of his life.

On the front end, Maximum Security looked very much like the same monster who’d blown away the field in the Florida Derby that March. He took the lead and maintained it through the first half of the race, the pack tightly bunched behind him. Nobody paid much attention to Prat’s yellow-and-brown-striped silks as he guided Country House into position for the colt’s go-to move, a three-wide surge on the far turn.

It was at that point when everything went haywire. Maximum Security, perhaps startled by the wall of noise that emanates from the grandstand as the horses move off the turn and into the final straight, veered outside under Saez. That was barely discernible at full speed, in real time, but it would alter the course of the race, and of racing history.

Maximum Security kept rolling, crossing the wire 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Country House, on his way to a coronation. But a second-place finish was enough to send a charge of elation through the Country House connections, and McFadden found himself scurrying from his box to the sloppy track to rejoice with Mott and Prat.

That’s when he remembered the exit plan he’d laid out. He called his wife and told her not to leave. Then he saw the inquiry notice go up on the scoreboard and told her to get down to the track, and to bring the rest of the group with her.

The jockey on Long Range Toddy, an aging midlevel veteran named Jon Court, filed a foul claim. When Mott saw him on the trackside phone with the racing stewards, right after the finish, he urged Prat to get on the phone too. (War of Will jockey Tyler Gaffalione and the horse’s trainer, Mark Casse, opted not to file.) Altogether, it set in motion a surreal limbo in the mud, the camps of Maximum Security and Country House planted on the track, waiting to find out who would head to the winner’s circle and who would head home.

“What happens if they take Maximum Security down?” Lisa McFadden asked Prat.

“We win,” he responded.

They won.

Mott, in gray, celebrating with Prat.

Mott, in gray, celebrating with Prat.

Ed Bowen, the historian, can find only one Derby parallel. In 1933, Brokers Tip won the race as a maiden and then never won again. That Derby was known as the “Fighting Finish,” after the jockeys for Brokers Tip and Head Play engaged in literal hand-to-hand combat down the stretch, whipping and grabbing at one another. Brokers Tip won amid great controversy and acrimony, as would Country House 86 years later.

“The keyhole of 1933 is where [Country House] fits,” Bowen says. “You’ll never be able to say he was the Derby winner without that asterisk. But in the next breath, you say that under the rules of the game he deserved to be put up as the winner. He will probably go down as an unfortunate figure.”

Some of the controversy from 2019 was softened by revelations this past March about Maximum Security’s trainer, Jason Servis, who was charged with a felony after a Department of Justice investigation alleged that he’d improperly drugged and medicated race horses, including Maximum Security. (Servis has pleaded not guilty.) Those charges did not exactly come as a shock to those in horse racing.

“He had a bad reputation; a lot of people knew about him,” says Larry Roth. “Who knows what drugs Maximum Security might have been on in the Derby, or might not have been on? But after that, we know our horse deserved to win.”

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In real time, the steward’s ruling was less a matter of vindication than it was pure elation for the Country House group. They danced through the mud to the winner’s circle on the interior of the track, then to the postrace press conference, then to the party at the Kentucky Derby museum. The owners returned to Lexington for a party at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, which stayed open late to pop champagne upon their arrival.

Mott’s night was more low-key. After checking on Country House and leaving the track around 10 p.m., he went to Joe’s Older Than Dirt, a blue-collar tavern near the house he was renting. Sitting down at the outside bar with his family, the bartender asked, “What kind of day did you have?”

“A pretty good one,” Mott replied.

As those connected to Country House celebrated on the night of May 4, 2019, none of them knew how short-lived their moment would be. Those two minutes and change were already fading behind them. Within 24 hours, their horse would have a fever. Then a cough. Then it would be over, a career washed away as quickly as mud off a pair of Walmart bo

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