Maximum Security’s disqualification in this year’s Kentucky Derby was one of the most significant in the sport’s history, but the ground the situation covered before and after his number came down was not completely uncharted.
Objections and inquiries are incredibly rare in the Derby, with this year’s race being the sixth instance in 145 runnings, and just two horses have been disqualified for an on-track foul. It took 110 years for the first horse to get taken down, and that dubious honor fell to Gate Dancer, who crossed the line fourth behind winner Swale in 1984 but was disqualified to fifth.
Though it came at perhaps the worst possible time, running into trouble was not an unexpected outcome for the enigmatic colt.
Trainer Jack Van Berg had spent Gate Dancer’s first nine starts before the Derby trying to get his horse to keep his head down and run in a straight line, going through five different jockeys and piles of equipment to little avail. He never missed the board, and he never acted as badly in the mornings, but his weaving would often cost him wins.
In the book “Jack: From Grit To Glory,” author Chris Kotulak outlined jockey Eddie Delahoussaye’s description of Gate Dancer as a distracted horse at the top of the stretch, paying more attention to the crowd and the grandstand than the task at hand. The equipment change that ensued from that feedback became Gate Dancer’s trademark for the rest of his racing career.
“I’d seen how they trained and raced horses down in Argentina when I went down to buy horses,” Van Berg told Kotulak, “Many of those horses wore hoods that covered the horses’ ears. I wanted to make a hood out of blinkers and keep foam rubber in place in his ears. I hated cotton in my ears as a kid so I didn’t want cotton in Gate Dancer’s ears.”
Gate Dancer came to the track for the G1 San Felipe Handicap with a veritable sensory deprivation chamber on his head, sporting a large shadow roll and earmuff covers that fit around his face like blinkers, giving him a distinct Easter Bunny look. He still bumped eventual winner Fali Time before running second, but Van Berg saw what he needed to see.
“It seemed as if the earmuffs made him finally drop his head,” Van Berg told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I’d always felt that he ran with his head too high; he looked like a goldurn turkey going down the track.”
Gate Dancer drew the outside-most 20 post in the 1984 Derby, and the start was calamitous, getting off a step slow and swerving out to the right. Delahoussaye and his mount sat in 19th after the opening quarter-mile, and the next six furlongs were used to improve their placing and get in position to make a move at the top of the stretch. Then came the antics.
Swale was long gone by the turn for home, but Delahoussaye had navigated Gate Dancer through traffic to put him on the outside with an unimpeded path to at least a minor award. Right before the eighth pole, Gate Dancer brushed up against his old San Felipe rival Fali Time and repeatedly bothered him throughout the stretch, causing him to lose momentum. Gate Dancer crossed the wire fourth, and Fali Time came in fifth. After a steward’s inquiry and jockey’s objection, the order was reversed. At the time, the race only paid down to fourth place, meaning Gate Dancer had bumped himself out of a $25,000 check.
Foreshadowing Maximum Security’s winding path 35 years later, owner Ken Opstein presented video evidence arguing that Gate Dancer didn’t get his fair shake, courtesy of Nebraska-based colleague Harry Farnham.
“He filmed the start of the Derby and, looking at it frame by frame. He believes the man on the gate still had hold of the horse when he broke,” Opstein told BloodHorse. “What was remarkable about the race was that he was about 20 lengths behind and closed to be fourth.”
Gate Dancer came back surprisingly well from his troubled Derby start, convincing Van Berg to go against his initial plans and enter him in the Preakness Stakes. He came to Pimlico Race Course with a new rider, Angel Cordero Jr., after Delahoussaye suggested their pairing wasn’t working as hoped – or to hear Van Berg tell it, after Delahoussaye’s agent lost his number.
“I figured that with both of them being a little crazy, they ought to suit each other,” Van Berg said of recruiting Cordero.
Van Berg also added one more piece to Gate Dancer’s menagerie of equipment for the Preakness, a burr bit, designed to keep horses from leaning into the bit and veering in that direction.
Gate Dancer and Cordero closed strong up the backstretch rail, and moved to the outside at the quarter pole, once again with a clear path to the wire. Aside from Cordero having to correct Gate Dancer gawking at the grandstand with about three-sixteenths to go, their aim was true, and they prevailed by a length and a half over Play On, giving Van Berg his first classic win.
Perfectly tying the colt’s entire narrative together to that point, the headline for the Thoroughbred Record’s recap read, “He Didn’t Muff It This Time.”
Gate Dancer continued to run at the sport’s highest levels for another two years, but he never fully kicked his reputation. Later that year, he and new rider Laffit Pincay Jr., were accused by jockey Pat Day of putting runner-up Imp Society into the rail at the top of the stretch en route to a wide-margin victory in the G3 Omaha Gold Cup Stakes at Ak-Sar-Ben. Dirt flew off the rail when Imp Society brushed it, but the judges determined Gate Dancer was not the instigator.
His bad acting caught up to him again that season during the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, where he finished second to Wild Again, but was disqualified to third.
Gate Dancer was so far back in the early goings of the Classic, he didn’t appear on the screen in the replay, but Pincay guided him into contention headed into the final turn and swung him wide for the drive. A grinding three-way stretch duel ended with Wild Again on the inside, a head in front of Gate Dancer on the outside. Between them, a half-length back, was Slew O’ Gold, who got squeezed by Gate Dancer in the fray and drew the foul.
Gate Dancer lost a combined $376,000 in purse earnings from his two high-profile disqualifications, but he did fine for himself on the track, retiring with $2,501,705.
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