By T. D. Thornton
In case you haven’t noticed, the tail end of 2019–destined to go down in history as the sport’s Year of Widespread Dysfunction–has bestowed upon us an unexpected gift: The racing at the top end of the totem pole has been unseasonably solid the past two weekends; satisfyingly replete with entertaining, exciting finishes that will serve as nuggets of intrigue heading into 2020.
The extended Thanksgiving weekend yielded no fewer than eight graded stakes across the country in which winners were decided by less than a length at the wire. The first full weekend in December gave us a rousing renewal of the GI Cigar Mile, plus bi-coastal Triple Crown prep races whose results are sure to provide ample argumentative fodder for early-season GI Kentucky Derby rankings.
One-turn miles are among the most fascinating contests to handicap in American dirt racing because the configuration brings together extended sprint specialists pushing their distance limits and proven stayers who must withstand pace demands beyond their comfort zones. It’s an impressive accomplishment when a one-turn mile victory is pulled off with panache, and Maximum Security (New Year’s Day)’s score in Saturday’s Cigar Mile at Aqueduct effectively closed the book on the 2019 East Coast stakes season with a resounding slam that is likely to reverberate until the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational S. at Gulfstream Park Jan. 25.
Saturday’s racing at Aqueduct was conducted under chilly but clear conditions with temperatures in the 30s, and although the card unfolded formfully, every race run after 2 p.m. was won in wire-to-wire fashion. That spread of five speed-dominated races included four graded stakes, and by the time jockey Luis Saez guided Maximum Security into the gate for the Cigar Mile, he must have had no doubt as to what his strategy would be with the freewheeling 13-10 favorite.
In the previous two races on the card, Saez had finished second on a favored closer in the GII Demoiselle S. and orchestrated an unexpected wire-to-wire win atop an 8-1 shot in the GII Remsen S. Those two contrasting tours of the track likely underscored his need to employ Maximum Security’s chief tactical asset as a frontrunner rather than taking back in deference to the other pace-pressing rivals in the Cigar Mile who were sure to give him a hard time for the lead.
“Max” broke alertly, but was put straight to pressure by Spun to Run (Hard Spun), whose status as the GI Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner marked him as no slouch to shrug off. The two dueled through brisk opening splits of :22.80 and :46.17, with Max always in control, but feeling the heat. Just after passing the half-mile pole, Saez asked Max to pick it up a notch, and Spun to Run quickened gamely in response.
The two favorites were roused by their riders until about 2 1/2 furlongs out, but then Saez, sensing that Max had the upper hand, backed off just a beat for half a furlong in order to give his colt a breather before the stretch run. Spun to Run continued to hound Max at the quarter pole, but when Saez set down the favored frontrunner three-sixteenths out, Spun to Run came unglued, while Max confidently clicked into another gear. No serious closers were in it to win it by the eighth pole, and Saez kept Max to task before wrapping up the final few strides before the wire, 3 1/2 lengths clear of everyone else.
It’s now been nearly a year since Maximum Security debuted a winner in a $16,000 Gulfstream maiden-claimer. His 2019 dossier includes two allowance wins by a combined 24 3/4 lengths and crossing the finish wire first in all four Grade I races he’s attempted, at distances of eight, nine (twice) and 10 furlongs (he was disqualified for a foul in the GI Kentucky Derby). His only on-track lifetime loss was a gutsy second when clearly not fully cranked off a layoff in a Monmouth prep stakes in June. And easily overlooked is Max’s professional October win in the GIII Bold Ruler H., which came after an acute bout of colic while facing older horses for the first time over seven furlongs, which is not an optimal distance for him.
Despite all of those accomplishments, the truly scary-good aspect of Maximum Security’s career arc is that he is just now exuding a palpable sense of rounding into peak prowess approaching age four. The Pegasus World Cup looms as his next challenge. Potential rivals probably don’t want (or need) to be reminded that Max is 4-for-4 at speed-centric Gulfstream Park.
Let’s be clear about that point about five straight wire-to-wire winners closing out Saturday’s Aqueduct card: Maximum Security’s performance did not at all appear to be bias-derived. But that Remsen win by Shotski (Blame) one race prior does have a “saved by the wire” aura to it, and the bay colt is going to have to prove in subsequent starts that his mild upset victory was not overtly aided by a speed-favoring surface and a tepid pace.
Shotski’s connections aimed for a change of tactics in the Remsen, and the January foal was up to the task of racing near the front of the pack like he did in his maiden sprint win at Laurel two starts back. He fought for the top in the two path through the clubhouse turn, and Saez made a bid for the lead soon after they hit the back straight, shaking off a 5-1 inside rival and then picking up another 22-1 challenger pressing from the outside.
The internal splits were easy (:24.26 and :50.08), but the mid-race pressure was steady, and by the time the field hit the far turn the front five were all within four lengths and under drives. Shotski rounded the bend for home still on top, but the main danger, Ajaaweed (Curlin), was the only foe making clear headway from the back with a loop-the-group move that had him parked widest into the lane.
Ajaaweed commenced a relentless grind while Shotski had all he could do to keep his deep-stretch cushion of 3 1/2 lengths from evaporating. By the time they hit the wire, the top two were only separated by a half-length with the remainder of the tired field scattered by open lengths. The two galloped out on equal terms, but the runner-up left the impression of having put together the more impressive race. Ajaaweed gave up considerable real estate while parked wide on both turns, and when asked for a bit more oomph in the final furlong, he delivered with a response that suggests Classic-distance accomplishments are within his grasp.
The 1:54.24 final time for Saturday’s Remsen was the slowest clocking since that stakes was elongated from a mile to nine furlongs in 1973. In addition, only three horses in the last 56 years–Thunder Gulch, Go For Gin and Pleasant Colony–have successfully parlayed the Remsen into a blanket of Derby roses on the first Saturday in May.
And on the Left Coast…
Bob Baffert trainees won five consecutive races on the Saturday card at Los Alamitos, including three juvenile races (two of them stakes). His score with the $1-million KEESEP colt Thousand Words (Pioneerof the Nile) was Baffert’s sixth consecutive victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity, which this year was downgraded from a Grade I to a Grade II stakes.
Thousand Words’s win over a sealed wet track (and only three other rivals) was the more eye-catching of the pair of bi-coastal Derby preps last weekend. Equipped with blinkers for the first time coming off a maiden debut win, Thousand Words engaged favored stablemate High Velocity (Quality Road) through rapid splits of :22.47 and :45.87 before launching for the lead three-eighths out.
High Velocity didn’t spit the bit though, and the two sniped back and forth, exchanging heads on the lead through the far turn while the pocketed closer Anneau d’Or (Medaglia d’Oro) switched off the rail to commence a wide-and-driving attack. Having dispatched with High Velocity in the home straight, Thousand Words dug in for the fresh challenge from the lumbering Anneau d’Or, who caught Thousand Words yet never was able to put his nose perceptibly in front as they dueled to the wire, where Thousand Word prevailed by a hard-earned neck.
Thousand Words gets style points for surviving both the internal pace battle and refusing to yield in the overall war when confronted anew, and he galloped out stronger than the runner-up after winning the 1 1/16-miles Futurity in 1:43.19, the fifth-slowest time for that stakes in its six runnings at Los Al.
Keep an eye on next-race placement for Thousand Words. Of Baffert’s six Los Al Futurity winners, the only two to go on and start in the Kentucky Derby–Dortmund and Mor Spirit–both won Santa Anita’s GIII Robert B. Lewis S. in their next starts. Overall, Baffert has won 12 iterations of this race (including the predecessor versions known as the Hollywood Futurity). But the only horse out of that dozen to go on and win the Kentucky Derby was Real Quiet in 1998.