The Week in Review, by T.D. Thornton
In a bizarre way fittingly in keeping with racing’s Year of Chaos that is fast approaching the rear-view mirror, the race that ended up being the most impactful on the sport this season wasn’t even run in 2019.
Rather, that race was conducted 11 days before the calendar flipped into 2019. This past Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the $16,000 maiden-claimer whose reverberations are still being heard ’round the world. Turn your mental clock back to Dec. 20, 2018, when you probably didn’t watch the 10th race from Gulfstream Park. Had you known it was destined to turn into the most meaningful low-level key race in history, perhaps you’d have tuned in.
The nightcap on the eve of last winter’s solstice was a 6 1/2-furlong sprint that featured a heavy favorite ridden by Luis Saez, and the horse’s connections were taking a chance on losing their well-meant runner via claim by dangling him in for such a relatively low price.
That race didn’t go as pari-mutuel probability suggested it might. Neither did the next 12 months in North American racing.
That’s because instead of that 13-10 favorite winning as expected, a homebred first-timer named Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) sped straight to the front and wired the field as the 2.7-1 third favorite.
You know how the script unfolded from there: Max ran up the score in two subsequent allowance starts by a combined 24 3/4 lengths, wired the GI Xpressbet Florida Derby, then led nearly every step of a tenacious trip to cross the wire first in the GI Kentucky Derby. But the colt barely got within sniffing distance of his blanket of roses before victory was adjudicated away by a controversial stewards’ disqualification, a polarizing decision that Maximum Security’s connections are still fighting in federal court.
The horse that did end up getting claimed out of that Dec. 20 maiden-claimer was the 2.3-1 second favorite, the third-place finisher. In fact, Math Wizard (Algorithms) was such a hot commodity that he was claimed twice more in succession, for $16,000 and $25,000, in a pair of races he won by a combined 25 1/4 lengths. After that, the Wiz blasted out of the selling ranks for good. Over the next eight months, the late-running chestnut more than earned back his investment by picking up checks for minor placings in five subsequent stakes, most of them of the Grade II and III variety.
By the time midsummer arrived, Maximum Security and Math Wizard were on paths that would criss-cross but never meet at the elite end of the racing spectrum. The thing they shared in common though, was that their career arcs kept brushing up against that weird, out-of-the-ordinary aura that ended up defining all of 2019.
Take Maximum Security’s GI betfair Haskell Invitational S. win: The race itself was a thriller to watch, featuring the hometown favorite gamely fighting through three distinct instances of in-race adversity to prevail.
But only a ghost-town smattering of fans got to see Max’s impressive triumph in person, because searing summer heat caused Monmouth Park to abandon most of its biggest day of racing while pushing the Haskell post time back to nearly nightfall. The eerie circumstances (including a no-change stewards’ inquiry that briefly raised the prospect of another questionable DQ) rivaled the stranger-than-fiction nature of Max’s Derby adventure 2 ½ months earlier.
By September, it looked as if the two alums of that high-profile maiden-claimer might meet in the GI Pennsylvania Derby. But Maximum Security was forced to scratch days before the race because of a severe bout of colic. His untimely absence significantly altered the pace complexion, and when the three Pennsylvania Derby favorites wore each other out through tepid fractions, the Wiz stormed by them all, wide and driving for a 31-1 shocker.
Maximum Security survived his colic ordeal, but the setback derailed his chances of making the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic (he instead capped his season by authoritatively winning the GI Cigar Mile a month later).
Math Wizard did end up running in the Classic, and he came home a credible fifth. But that race ended up infamous for all the wrong reasons when Mongolian Groom (Hightail) suffered a catastrophic injury that led to his euthanization, sparking a loud, prolonged public outcry about Thoroughbred welfare that has badly rattled the U.S. racing industry.
It’s mind-blowing to think that the three most talked-about Grade I races of 2019–the Kentucky Derby, the Haskell, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic–all had ties to an unheralded, low-level maiden sprint that no one ever fathomed would be a game-changer.
Yet the most astonishing aspect of that key race might still be in the pipeline: Both Maximum Security and Math Wizard are under consideration for the $20 million Saudi Cup Feb. 29. The potential for not just one, but two horses to make the stratospheric leap out of the same $16,000 maiden-claimer to the world’s richest horse race defies all logic and history–which is why it’s such a tantalizing prospect.
You could probably win a bar bet by retaining the name of that well-meant maiden who was favored to beat both Maximum Security and Math Wizard one year ago.
That would be Guerreron (Revolutionary), who eventually hit the winner’s circle two months later. The gelding has knocked around the claiming ranks trying to escape his NW2L condition ever since, and has changed hands twice via the claim box while running at or near Florida’s lowest levels.
After eating Maximum Security’s dust aboard Guerreron in that Dec. 20, 2018, maiden race, jockey Luis Saez eventually picked up the mount aboard Max and engineered a career-best season in 2019 while piloting the potential 3-year-old champ to every one of his stakes scores.
And the 1-for-18 Guerreron? Last Wednesday he ran fourth for an $8,000 tag at Tampa Bay Downs. He isn’t fleet of foot, but the battle-tested gelding tries–befitting of a horse whose name roughly translates to “warrior.”
Horses like Maximum Security dominate the sport’s headlines, and deservedly so. But the Guerrerons of the game keep the industry grinding along on a daily basis, and they’re important too.
If you’re a believer in the “parallel universe” theory, maybe there’s a Kentucky Derby or a Saudi Cup trip to Riyadh out there somewhere in the multiverse with Guerreron’s name on it.
But not, for certain, in the world we are currently inhabiting. This twilight zone of a racing season has been bizarre enough on its own, thanks.