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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Is the 2019 Kentucky Derby a watershed on the road to change?

The first we knew of Donald Trump's interest in horseracing was a bust of Martin Luther King crashing into the wall of the Oval Office and a storm of Big Mac wrappers wept off the Resolution Desk.

Fortunately, White House staffers had long removed anything of worth from the room and MLK was safely away in a vault as the cheap knock off shattered on the carpet.

There'd been a phone call after the Kentucky Derby and the President Of The United States took it badly.

"Maximum Security. If that wasn't the best omen tip ever in the history of omen tips. Period. Ridden by a guy from one of those Mexican countries. Maximum Security. Winner," Trump screamed, turning a keener shade of orange, and hit Twitter. "The Kentucky Derby decision was not a good one. It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch. Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby - not even close!"

Then he added to anyone within hearing: "Hillary got to them. Or Obama. It was a Witch Hunt. There was no obstruction."

Yet the controversial first-ever Kentucky Derby take down in the stewards' room may be just the catalyst required to change the protest rules in the United States.

Hong Kong Jockey Club chief steward Kim Kelly has been one of the leading figures in attempts to harmonise global racing rules since the subject was a major discussion topic at the Dubai Asian Racing Conference in early 2007.

That discussion coincided with the emergence of the term commingling at the same conference, as the few powerful officials recognising the future importance of commingling were equally aware that racing needed, like other global sports, to have a set of uniform rules that punters everywhere would recognise and understand.

We might have different opinions on a referee's interpretation of an offside or a handball in football but at least everyone knows the rule.

I have often joked with Kelly that harmonisation of the racing rules across the world is a job for life, yet the progress made on protest rules has been significant.

Going back to the late 1980s, Maximum Security would have lost the Kentucky Derby in Great Britain or Ireland.

The race that livened up debate on the subject there was the 1988 Ascot Gold Cup, won by Royal Gait (above - sorry about the lousy picture taken off 31 year old vision on YouTube but the race is there to view if you want to!) A horse called El Conquistador led the race at a furious pace by many lengths and was utterly gassed at the 500m and would have blown over is a mild breeze. As Royal Gait passed him, he brushed with El Conquistador, who fell. Never mind the decisive margin in favour of Maximum Security, Royal Gait went on to win by a huge margin, as you see, but was disqualified and placed last, behind the faller.

Some time in the 1990s, that led to a change of the rules in Great Britain and Ireland but many other jurisdictions persisted with what we now refer to as a Category 2 philosophy.

Until 2013, the Kentucky Derby winner would have been taken down in Japan. The catalyst for change there was Rose Kingdom getting the 2010 Japan Cup in the stewards' room over then Japanese champion and defending Japan Cup winner, Buena Vista, who had been clearly the best horse in the race (belo.

After the 2010 Japan Cup shocker, a year later Hong Kong sprinter Green Birdie ran fourth across the line in the G2 Centaur Stakes at Hanshin but, rounding the home turn, had brushed another horse which finished 8 lengths behind him and was eventually placed behind that horse, in 14th place. The change in Japan was on the way at that point but the unfriendly "international incident" with a visiting horse may have tipped it over the edge.

And, as recently as September, 2017, Maximum Security would have lost the Derby if it was run in France or Germany, too, and South American jurisdictions only came completely on board with Category 1 protest rules last year.

In short, Category 1 is defined by the philosophy that a successful protest requires not just interference by Horse B against Horse A but the argument must be sustained in the stewards' room that, without the interference, Horse B would have beaten Horse A across the line.

The Category 2 philosophy is that if Horse A won the race but, along the way cost Horse B the chance to run 10th instead of 11th, then he deserves disqualification and is placed behind the interference suffer. And it leaves no wiggle room.

Now, is Category 1 perfect? No, so let's not get too cute about tut tutting the Yanks.

There is a flaw in Category 1. It's no secret that when Greg Hall was one of Australia's top jockeys, a bit of argy bargy in the final stages was all part of the show on the way to getting the job done.

Think serious interference as he came out to make his winning run in Merlene's Golden Slipper (left). Think Mahogany's AJC Derby when Hall took a wide draw out of the equation in the early stages by taking out most of those drawn underneath him. And he was not alone - Mick Dittman, Jimmy Cassidy, Shane Dye, Ron Quinton...the list goes on. And that's just in the era of video replays since the 1970s - who knows what they got up to before that!

If you were a top jockey riding under Category 1 (though it wasn't called that then), there were plenty of wins big and small owed to taking out the opposition at some point and making sure you beat them by far enough to quash any protest. Sure, the rider finished with a fine - perhaps paid by a grateful owner - but the result was in the book and invaluable as far as stud prospects were concerned.

So it isn't perfect but it is more satisfactory than Category 2.

Where we are now, North America - the US and Canada - is the final hold out, but quite a significant hold out at that, with more races annually than Australia and Europe combined.

But an incident like the Kentucky Derby disqualification last weekend is just the event that might swing the argument around to completing the first serious piece of global harmonisation - a uniform protest rule the world over.

It even has Trump's backing.

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