By Joe Bianca
Patience is a virtue in racing, and trainer Brendan Walsh showed it in spades over the winter with his first Grade I winner, Godolphin's Maxfield (Street Sense). A blowout victor of the GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity last fall, the homebred was slated to be one of the favorites in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but had to be scratched with an ankle injury and was slowly brought along by Walsh to a triumphant sophomore debut in the GIII Matt Winn S. Saturday, almost eight months after his last start.
The Irish-born Walsh joined the TDN Writers' Room podcast presented by Keeneland Wednesday as the Green Group Guest of the Week to discuss the training strategy with his star pupil, how to fix the drug problem in American racing, Godolphin's quest for an elusive GI Kentucky Derby win and more.
“My approach with him and pretty much all of our horses is to let them tell me what they're going to do,” Walsh said. “Every horse is important, but I knew this is a special horse and I wasn't going to do anything that was going to mess the horse up, as much as we'd all like to win the Derby.”
Once the Derby got postponed four months, many in the sport pointed to the comebacking Maxfield as one of the horses who would benefit the most from the extra preparation time, but Walsh said he thinks his colt would've had a good shot on the first Saturday in May as well.
“Everyone tells me it was a blessing in disguise that the Derby got moved, and it may well have been, but he's a very good horse and it seems like he overcomes an awful lot of things and it wouldn't have surprised me if he [won] anyway,” Walsh said. “He was going to make it, but he was going to make it off of one prep. The experts are going to tell you it's pretty much an impossibility to win the Derby off one prep, but it was something that we could've tried anyway. We took it step by step, day by day and in the end we were able to back down off him a little bit, take a fresh approach and do it the way we wanted, like he hadn't been injured last year.”
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With the news of a horse in the Arkansas Derby testing positive for lidocaine bringing the omnipresent topic of drugs in racing into the conversation, Walsh was asked about what he would do to bring more clarity to the sport's drug policies.
“Whether it be for or against certain medications, I think it needs to be one rule for everybody,” he said. “We were being told seven, eight, nine months ago when all the trouble was at its strongest with all the breakdowns, how we needed to form a national body. Has somebody jumped up to form a national body? No. And now we're back to probably where we were again. With the COVID, everything in our industry has taken a backseat and it's gone to sleep again. Nobody's stepped up to form this national body. Everyone's talking about, they want to do this and they want to do that, where's the person that's going to step up and actually do this?”
Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin has won just about every big race there is to win in Europe and a myriad of historic trophies in the States, but the one prize that's evaded them to this point is the Derby. Should he make it to the starting gate, Maxfield figures to give them as good a shot as they've had at taking down the Run for the Roses.
“I worked for them [in Europe] in the late '90s, early 2000s, and even back then they were throwing the kitchen sink at trying to win the Derby,” Walsh said. “They had horses in Dubai for the winter to bring over here and then they tried to do it from England. They've tried all kinds of ways, and it's a very difficult race to win, full stop. They had a hell of a shot a couple years ago with Thunder Snow, and it got killed leaving the gate. They'd really, really like to win it, and this might be their best chance.”
Elsewhere on the show, in the West Point news segment, the writers forecasted the implications of the Oaklawn drug test revelations if the horse who tested positive goes on to win the Derby. They also debated the significance of vastly increased handle at Churchill and Santa Anita and how to fix a broken business model for trainers.