Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

The Kentucky Derby Proves That Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes

Photo: John Minchillo (AP)

Horse racing had replay before everybody else. But that side of the allegedly perpetually declining sport was never in the spotlight so much as it was Saturday, when Churchill Downs stewards took their time before taking a Kentucky Derby win away from Maximum Security on a foul claim.

Everybody in the racing and lots of folks out of it have weighed in. I decided to ask, John Scheinman, my favorite railbird, for his views. Turns out that unlike the U.S. president, Scheinman thinks “the DQ was just,” as he told me. Then again, Scheinman has more than 4,500 reasons to be pleased by the bombshell result.

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Screencap of Scheinman’s exotic and winning Derby bet
Photo: Courtesy of John Scheinman

Scheinman, an award-winning turf writer and horse wagerer out of Baltimore who covered racing for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2009, had three winning $1 exacta tickets with Country House over Code of Honor, each worth $1,504.80.

Going into the Derby, Scheinman already had big score bona fides. When Scheinman started his job at the Post, he had trouble getting the paper’s lead turf writer, the legendary and brilliant gambling freak Andy Beyer, to notice him for a year. But Beyer paid attention when Scheinman loudly announced to the Pimlico press box how much he liked a longshot pick in the Maryland Million Sprint on Maryland Million Day in 2001 at Pimlico. When that horse came in at 17-1, a friendship was sired.

“Andy comes over to me and says, ‘How did you know that?’” Scheinman says. “I became a person of substance who was worth his time. It was great to have access to his mind. He’s got a great mind. And he’s also a degenerate!”

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When Beyer, the attention-averse purveyor of racing’s preeminent advanced stat, the Beyer Speed Figure, retired from the Post, he allowed Scheinman to write an authorized and wonderful appreciation of his career. That piece, which appeared in the Paulick Report, earned Scheinman his second Eclipse Award, the Pulitzer of turf writing.

Then there was the time in 2005 when Scheinman hit a Pick Three on Kentucky Derby Day, a parlay wage where he correctly bet on the winners of the last three races on the Churchill Downs card, topped by Giacomo, who won the big race at 50-1. That was a $14,972 score. Scheinman, who remembers giving out his pick of Giacomo before the race during an appearance on Los Angeles radio, still had to file his Derby story on deadline for the Post, which he says he typed up with “149 tightly folded-up $100 bills in my pocket.”

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Scheinman says he watched Saturday’s race on TV with his brother, after making lots of wagers online. He had no idea he had another big score coming his way when the race ended with Maximum Security seemingly headed for the winner’s circle.

“I had so many tickets going, and I thought they all got exploded right there,” he says. “So I’m at my computer sulking for a few minutes, and I see there’s an objection.”

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Objections are common in everyday racing—no railbird tears up their tickets until they see “official” go up on the tote board—but rare in the Derby, the only race that matters to the casual watcher. The last time a foul claim was officially registered against a winner was in 2001, when connections to longshot runner-up Invisible Ink alleged interference by runaway winner Monarchos. That was Scheinman’s first year of covering the Derby, and in the days before the race had touted Invisible Ink in both a feature story in the Post and in a predictions piece that ran in USA Today. He put money where his mouth was at the betting window, putting Invisible Ink in his triple bets and other exotic wagers. “I wheeled the exacta and bet him across the board,” he recalls with gusto, using jargon that’s pillow talk to degenerates. “A tremendous pick!”

Invisible Ink went off at 55-1, and Scheinman says he stood to cash tickets worth five figures if the objection succeeded and the place horse was put on top. But it was not to be; Monarchos was allowed to keep the Derby win and the racing immortality that goes with it.

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“That doesn’t happen in the Derby,” he says of takedowns. “I was typing while quaking in my boots! But I still filed a damn good story on deadline, I’m proud to say.”

Scheinman says that for this year’s wagers, he’d added Country House to his exotics only after noticing during his pre-race handicapping studies that the horse had among the best ratings for breeding for both stamina and class, and a re-examination of his Derby prep races the Fairground in Louisiana. “Plus, he’s 50-1!” Scheinman explains. “So, yeah, I’m going to use him. It was a longshot, but it was calculated.”

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As the debate over Maximum Security’s comportment kept going, and going, and going—the stewards’ conference lasted 10 times as long as the race—the odds that Derby history would be made grew shorter and shorter. And Scheinman got increasingly optimistic about his own literal fortunes. By the time the decision was handed down, his tickets had gone from worthless to being worth far more than their weight in gold.

Many of the complaints about the stewards’ ruling focus on the boffo performance Maximum Security turned in before and after initiating contact with other horses. Even Scheinman was wowed by the horse’s perseverance after running into trouble approaching the final turn. “He ran his fifth quarter mile faster than he ran his fourth quarter mile. This just doesn’t happen,” Scheinman says. “And after running a mile and an eighth he gets passed by two horses in the lane, and then regains the lead. That just doesn’t happen either. I really can’t remember a race of that magnitude where two horses pass the leader and he comes back to win.”

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But he gets even pricklier when the part-time racing pundits who spend one to three days a year watching a horse race say Maximum Security’s performance should have swayed the ruling.

“I don’t want that kind of adjudicating!” he says. “The stewards should decide was a foul committed, and if so take him down. Stick to the foul! That ‘having the best horse’ stuff is speaking of the ignorance they have of the sport. Was [Maximum Security] the best horse? I don’t want to fucking know.

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“I look at it this way: Say, me, John Scheinman is fighting Mike Tyson. And in Round 1, Mike Tyson hits me, John Scheinman, full force in the balls. Should the judges say, ‘Mike Tyson was the best fighter!’? No! The point is: Mike Tyson hit John Scheinman in the balls! That’s a foul! Bottom line: They made absolutely the right decision!”

True degenerates know that the profits from big scores are destined to get handed back to the track in pursuit of more big scores. Scheinman says the only splurge with his winnings came with a post-race Haitian food feast. As for the upcoming Preakness Stakes held (for now) at his home track of Pimlico, Scheinman’s peeved that Maximum Security’s camp has decided to stay home and whine rather than force the sort of hype-friendly rematch with Country House that the sport could really use.

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“You have this huge controversial result that for better or worse has everybody talking about racing,” he says, “and even the president of the United States is tweeting about racing. You can settle it on the track, and instead you’re going to leave the horse in the barn? Aw, boo hoo! Shut up.”

As for his Preakness prediction, Scheinman says that while the field is still too much in flux to offer up a stone-cold lock, his early advice is, “Don’t ignore the local horse.” That means Alwaysmining, a Maryland runner. He’ll be a longshot.

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(Disclosure: Scheinman replaced me at the Washington Post sports section after Tony Kornheiser got me fired from a $75-a-week gig covering Maryland racing for writing something mean about him.)

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