by Johnny D
December 12, 2019
The tournament director sheepishly approached the podium, cleared his throat and adjusted the microphone, eliciting a screech of feedback in return.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my duty to inform you and the handful of competitors still out on the course that, in an unprecedented occurrence, the leader in the clubhouse, somehow, has just registered a hole-in-one eagle. His lead now is insurmountable. Game over. Thank you for your interest and see you next year!”
Yep, that pretty much sums up Maximum Security and his year-long journey from bottom to top. Nothing about this colt went by the book. Only thing he did easy was win races. Nearly all of them.
Maximum Security, a homebred colt owned by Gary and Mary West, began his career for a $16K tag in a Gulfstream maiden race. Turns out that was no ordinary maiden claimer. This year, the race has produced not one, but TWO, Grade 1 winners (Math Wizard finished third and later won the Pennsylvania Derby)!
Maximum Security then won two Gulfstream starter allowance races before winning the Florida Derby. He then crossed the finish first in the Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified for interference.
Quick, name the last horse to take the maiden-claiming/starter allowance/Florida Derby road to the Kentucky Derby? I can’t.
‘Max also is the first ever to be disqualified from victory in the Kentucky Derby. And in Louisville beneath the twin spires, ‘ever’ spans 145 years.
‘Unprecedented,’ for sure. Beginning to get the picture?
‘Max wasn’t bred in the purple. His father New Year’s Day spent a few years in the big leagues of bluegrass breeding, but his batting average wasn’t good enough. Three months before ‘Max’s debut, his old man was sold and shipped to Brazil for stud duty. Made sense at the time. Save some bread. Send him to the minors for seasoning. Since Max’s Derby success, New Year’s Day has been sold again, and will begin 2020 as a sire in the Japan league.
Max’s mother also was a bit of a castoff, peddled over a year ago for just $11K—about the price of a high-mileage 2012 Ford Focus. What a difference a year makes! We’ve all heard how famous parents provide offspring a leg up in the world. In this case, it’s the other way around. Maximum Security’s success has led to increased respect for his family, especially his mother Lil Indy and unnamed sister.
In early November, Lil Indy sold at Keeneland for $1.85 million, boasting a cover by well-regarded sire Quality Road. Minutes after Max’s mom sold, a reserve of $190,000 kept Max’s weanling full sister from trading hands.
See what I mean. You can’t make this stuff up. Unless, of course, it’s the plot of a picture show that stars Elizabeth Taylor as the beautiful young girl who ultimately rides ‘Max to momentary glory in the Kentucky Derby; Walter Brennan stars as the cagey, unorthodox trainer; and Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed play caring, doting owners and parents.
Had the controversial Kentucky Derby disqualification been the only blemish on Maximum Security’s 2019 race record, he would have been better appreciated more quickly. Unbeaten horses are easy to support. But, as mentioned earlier, ‘Max doesn’t do ‘easy.’
In his next start, following the Kentucky Derby, in the ungraded Pegasus at Monmouth, he stubbed his toe--no, really, he actually stubbed his toe when he stumbled badly at the start). He lost by a length to King for a Day and the defeat further diminished an image already scarred by sentiment that he and jockey Luis Saez had ‘cheated’ to win the Derby.
‘Max redeemed himself next out in the Haskell, succeeding from multiple graded-stakes winner Mucho Gusto and eventual Breeders’ Cup Mile hero Spun to Run.
The Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic were intended ports of call, but ‘Max suffered a serious case of colic and missed the boat. Away from the races from July until October, his stock price slid. Out of sight, out of mind.
Meanwhile, Code of Honor, third to Maximum Security in the Florida Derby, dominated Dwyer foes, roared home to win the Travers and was elevated to victory via disqualification in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was an impressive string of wins for a colt owned and trained by racing royalty—W. S. Farish and Shug McGaughey, respectively. Understandably, the popular colt rocketed to the front of the sophomore class.
Finally, July 20th, ‘Max returned to win the seven-furlong Bold Ruler at Belmont over older foes. Most were impressed, but not overwhelmed. After all, it merely was a Grade 3 sprint.’ Max’s prospects of winning the sophomore Eclipse seemed tenuous, especially without a scheduled Breeders’ Cup appearance on the horizon.
To complicate matters, the connections of Maximum Security didn’t scream ‘warm and fuzzy.’ The colt’s owners Gary and Mary West, generous philanthropic people, refused to accept the Kentucky stewards’ Derby decision and continued to drag the matter through court. The colt’s trainer Jason Servis, who wins at an incredibly high percentage no matter where he races, has unorthodox training methods and in interviews is about as forthcoming with information as Bill Belichick. And racing doesn’t do ‘unorthodox’ well.
On the first Saturday in November, the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award was Code of Honor’s to win. An in-the-money finish in the Classic, presumably, would seal the deal.
Before that race was run, however, a new candidate tossed his hat into the ring. Sophomore Spun to Run, third to ‘Max in the Haskell and an ultra-impressive winner of the M. P. Ballezzi Appreciation Stakes at Parx, dominated elders in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. That performance caused voters to rub chins and mutter, ‘Hmm.’
When Code of Honor finished a disappointing seventh in the Classic behind Vino Rosso divisional honors went up for grabs.
Last Saturday, in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, Maximum Security snatched the brass ring. And looking back, perhaps, he always was the top 3-year-old without a serious rival. This year, he had crossed the finish first in all of his Grade 1 races—four of them—Florida Derby, Haskell, Cigar Mile and Kentucky Derby. He’s also never been worse than third at any call in nine career races and registered seven Beyer figures over 100! Code of Honor and Spun to Run have two each.
For the first time in his life, Maximum Security made something ‘easy.’ Easy for voters to cast Eclipse ballots in his favor as Outstanding 3-year-old Male. It should have been easy all along. However, as we’ve learned, Maximum Security doesn’t do ‘easy.’