Op-Ed: Controversy Nothing New to Kentucky Derby
While this year’s Kentucky Derby lasted about two minutes, controversy surrounding the race is far from being over.
Stewards at Churchill Downs disqualified the horse Maximum Security for interference. Shortly thereafter, they suspended that horse’s jockey, Luis Saez, for 15 days.
Saez said that he will appeal his suspension. Furthermore, the owners of Maximum Security have filed a federal lawsuit against the Kentucky Racing Commission over the disqualification.
While current disputes about the “fastest two minutes in sports” are ongoing, at least none of the jockeys had a brawl.
That’s exactly what happened 86 years ago, when the Run for the Roses became the War of the Roses.
In 1933, more than 30,000 spectators gathered at Churchill Downs for the 59th running of the Kentucky Derby. While all eyes were on the favorite Ladysman, the race proved to be a surprising head-to-head battle between the horses Head Play and Brokers Tip, ridden by Herb Fisher and Don Meade, respectively.
When the race began, Head Play quickly moved to the front of the pack. Brokers Tip dropped to 11th place.
Although Head Play maintained a solid lead, on the final turn the horse swerved a bit outside. Brokers Tip, which had steadily advanced, pushed forward against the rail and caught up to the leader.
Meade, the jockey on Brokers Tip, later said, “I was about to give up in despair when all of a sudden Broker’s Tip began running like a wild horse.”
Both jockeys furiously whipped their mounts. They also grabbed one another, pulling each other’s saddles, blankets and arms as the horses bumped together.
The Chicago Tribune said, “Both jockeys roughed it in the final desperate drive, one as much as the other.”
When the horses crossed the finish line, they were nose-to-nose. Judges, however, declared Brokers Tip the winner.
The coda of the desperate finish occurred at the end of the race: Fisher slammed his whip into Meade’s face.
At the time, sportswriter Alan Gould called it “one of the most thrilling, bitterly fought two-horse finishes in the 59-year history of the classic Kentucky Derby.” He added that it was “a tingling duel of horse flesh and rough riding right down to the wire.”
Fisher immediately ran up to the stewards and lodged a complaint against Meade, claiming that the winning jockey had fouled him.
Emotions were high. “Fisher broke down and cried as he talked to the stewards,” a newspaper wrote. The judges, however, disallowed his complaint. According to a reporter, “Fisher sagged down on a bench and burst into tears, weeping while his rival received the acclamations of victory.”
This race marked only the second time in Derby history that one jockey accused another of a foul. In the end, the judges found that both men “were guilty of rough riding.”
Fisher decided to take his complaint directly to the jockeys’ dressing room. When Meade arrived there, Fisher attacked him.
A journalist said that Fisher charged the jockey “with both fists flaying the air. He was crying and almost incoherent as he lunged madly at Meade.” After others pulled the two men apart, spectators heard an enraged Fisher cry, “He beat me out of it.”
Stewards suspended both men for 30 days for “rough racing.” Fisher got an extra five days off for attacking Meade.
The suspension meant that neither man could race in the Preakness Stakes. Head Play handily won that race while Brokers Tip came in last. The 1933 Kentucky Derby was the only career win for Brokers Tip out of 14 lifetime starts.
Although a 1933 photo from the Courier-Journal shows the two jockeys grabbing one another, Meade later confessed, “I actually was the one who grabbed him first, but only to protect myself.” The jockey said he was worried that Fisher would “put me through the fence.”
Thanks to this rough riding and the brawl in the jockeys’ room, today the race is remembered as “The Fighting Finish.” Despite this moniker, the two jockeys eventually became friends.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.