BALTIMORE - The moment this year's Kentucky Derby results became official, Clinton Pitts Jr.'s phone rang. And rang. And rang. For two days, the onetime Maryland racing steward fielded calls from folks asking for Pitts' take on the first Derby in which the apparent winner was disqualified for a bump-and-run.
Why ask Pitts? Because 39 years ago, as one of three stewards at the Preakness, he found himself at the crux of a similar uproar. In 1980, Pitts helped resolve the disputed race in which the winner, Codex, was absolved of fouling his rival, a celebrated filly named Genuine Risk.
The protest at this month's Derby returned that Preakness to the fore. Each time, the stewards' decision was skewered in public. But Pitts, 77, defends both calls.
"After the Derby, people kept asking, 'Whaddaya think? Whaddaya think?' Well, the stewards made the right call," Pitts said. "What Maximum Security did - interfering with at least three other horses - was inexcusable and flagrant, no question about it. For me, that would have been an easier call than the Preakness."
Ah, the Preakness. On May 17, 1980, at Pimlico Race Course, all eyes were fixed on Genuine Risk, the second filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby. There, she'd swung wide on the far turn past the pack and thundered on down the stretch, capturing the hearts of an adoring public. But in the Preakness, when Genuine Risk tried to repeat that move, the leader - a colt named Codex - intervened. Angel Cordero Jr., a savvy jockey, appeared to float Codex outside, possibly jostling the filly and certainly breaking her tempo to spoil the storybook finish that had entranced a national audience.
Codex won by 4 3/4 lengths.
The filly's rider cried foul. Even now, at 75, Jacinto Vasquez seethes at the mention of that race.
"(Cordero) mugged me and he got away with it," Vasquez said. "He pushed my horse out into the parking lot. He undressed me, barbecued me and took me to the clubhouse."
It's not Cordero, or even Codex, who drew Vasquez's ire. He's still angry at the stewards for not upholding the protest.
"I congratulated Angel after the race for what he got away with," said Vasquez, who, like Cordero, is a Hall of Fame jockey. "He took advantage, that's all. I've done the same thing many times and, sometimes, gotten away with it. I barbecued him in a race in 1979, and he got even in the Preakness.
"The stewards? Those three blind mice should have been put in jail for the decision they made."
Pitts, the only surviving member of that trio, saw Vasquez not long ago.
"He smiled, shook his head and said, 'I don't believe it. Bad call,' " Pitts said. "I just shrugged my shoulders.
"To this day, I don't think Cordero fouled. Codex was already four (horses) wide at the head of the lane; he didn't drift that far. After the race, we went into a film trailer to see the pictures. The other (stewards) were adamant about leaving Codex up, but I wasn't positive until I looked at all the photos to try to create a 3D picture in my head."
"It was just bad racing luck that Genuine Risk got parked out even further. But then (sportscaster) Howard Cosell went on TV and said something like, 'This isn't a horse race; it's the boys against the girls,' which just added fuel to the fire and made it a sexist thing in every newspaper in the nation."
Genuine Risk would finish second in the Belmont Stakes; Codex was seventh. She is a Hall of Fame thoroughbred; he is not.
A racing steward for 34 years, Pitts lives in Pungoteague, Va. He said he can't attend a race without hearing about that Preakness.
"It's either people who bet on Codex and made a lot of money, or those who bet on Genuine Risk and lost in a race that cost her a shot at the Triple Crown," he said. "Everyone has an argument to make, either for or against our decision. I think there must have been 200,000 people at Pimlico that day.
"Sure, I made some bad calls. Nobody can walk on water, so far as I know. But to this day, on that day, I think we made the right one."