Max Player Brings a Touch of Class to New Jersey Breeding Program

Max Player at Annestes Farm | Sarah Andrew

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MIDDLETOWN, NJ–The Kentucky breeding industry didn't bite on 2021 GI Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Max Player (Honor Code–Fools in Love, by Not For Love), not exactly a surprise considering he was overshadowed during his career by stars such as Flightline (Tapit), Tiz the Law (Constitution), Authentic (Into Mischief), Epicenter (Not This Time) and others. When that happens, it usually means that the horse will land in one of the stronger regional markets, like New York or Pennsylvania. Not Max Player. He's been retired to owner George Hall's Annestes Farm in New Jersey. He will represent the first stallion ever to stand at Hall's farm.

It is a bit of a gamble. Monmouth Park is set to run for just 51 days this year and there will be 10 days of turf racing at the Meadowlands after that. New Jersey-breds do run for good money. At the 2023 Monmouth meet, the purse for a New Jersey-bred maiden race was $72,000. But with so few opportunities for Jersey-breds to run in restricted state-bred races, it's a constant struggle for the New Jersey breeding industry to convince people to breed in the state.

“I know breeding is important to people in this state,” Hall said. “It's just a matter of finding a way to get all the pieces to fit together.”

Could Max Player be one of those pieces?

In 1987, when there was year-round racing in the state, the New Jersey foal crop numbered 1,075. In 2023, it was all the way down to 110. Nine stallions stood in the state in 2023. The hope for Max Player is that his status as a Grade I winner will set him apart from the rest and that he will be the first choice among breeders and owners who remain interested in the New Jersey program.

Max Player is the first Grade I winner to stand in the state since 2004, the last year Evening Kris, the winner of the 1988 GI Jerome H., stood at Walnford Stud.

“Any time you bring a Grade I winner to your state it is a big deal, especially here because we have not had many,” said Mike Campbell, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association of New Jersey. “It shows that George Hall and his partners have faith, not only in New Jersey racing, but also New Jersey breeding. We're happy he's here and hope he does well.”

Max Player had talent, but what he lacked was consistency. In just his third career start, he won the GIII Withers S. during the COVID year of 2020. He then ran third in both the GI Belmont S. and the GI Travers S. before finishing fifth in the GI Kentucky Derby, run in September because of the pandemic. It was more of the same when he finished off the board in the GI Preakness S. and, the following year, the Saudi Cup and the GIII Pimlico Special.

And then he turned into a star, at least for two months. He won the 2021 GII Suburban S. by a neck over G1 Dubai World Cup winner Mystic Guide (Ghostzapper) and came back two months later to win the Gold Cup over 2020 Gold Cup winner Happy Saver (Super Saver) in his next start.

“Winning a Grade I, especially one at Saratoga, is very tough,” Hall said. “You know you're going to be facing the best competition. To win that race, it was an amazing experience.”

After the Gold Cup win, Max Player again finished out of the money in his next four starts. His final appearance on the racetrack came in a Feb. 25, 2023 allowance race at Oaklawn in which he lost his action and had to be vanned off the track.

He was sent to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington after the Oaklawn race and was treated for an infection. He then spent time at Spy Coast Farm in Lexington for rehabilitation, and made a full recovery.

It was already too late for the 2023 breeding season, so Hall took a step back while deciding what to do. In the end, he owned a farm in New Jersey and thought there was an opening in the state for a Grade I-winning stallion.

“In terms of New Jersey, New Jersey-breds get bonuses and I have the farm here,” Hall said. “If I didn't have the farm, we probably wouldn't be here. It was pretty easy to just bring him up here and stand him here. If a stallion farm in Kentucky said they really wanted Max and were going to support him, I would have considered that. In the absence of that, I wanted to bring him up here. Hopefully, New Jersey breeding will get better now that Max is here and, hopefully, some other strong sires will come to New Jersey.”

Max Player's stud fee is $5,000, which, Hall hopes, people will come to realize is a bargain.

“He's got a Grade I, two thirds in Grade I races, he won graded stakes as 3-year-old and as a 4-year-old,” Hall said. “And the Grade I's were not run of the mill Grade I's. They are some of the biggest races on the calendar. That's our pitch.”

Hall's goal is for Max Player to attract 25 mares this year, a number he believes will increase once his foals hit the track and find some success.

“If he hits a home run, we will keep him in New Jersey,” Hall said. “That would be great and would mean more mares will come into the state. I'm not going to move him. He's here. It would be great if New Jersey racing and breeding could advance because of Max.”

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