By Bill Finley
When Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) touched down in Saudi Arabia last week, a new chapter began for the horse that had a star-crossed 2019. On Saturday, he will face the stiffest challenge of his career in the inaugural running of the $20-million Saudi Cup. It’s a race that will answer a lot of questions, but don’t be surprised if the end result is an emphatic win from last year’s 3-year-old male champion.
While Maximum Security had a strong 3-year-old campaign, his year was remembered more for what didn’t happen than what did. If only he had run a straighter course, he would have won the GI Kentucky Derby in decisive fashion. If he had not been disqualified in the Derby, he likely would have gone on to the GI Preakness S. That didn’t happen, and neither did starts in the GI Travers S., the GI Pennsylvania Derby and the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. Something always seemed to be going wrong, including a bout with colic.
That’s one of the reasons why he didn’t get the acclaim that normally would have gone to a horse with that much talent. That and the fact he began his career in a $16,000 maiden claimer and then ran in two starter allowances before winning the GI Florida Derby.
With all the setbacks, trainer Jason Servis was constantly regrouping. Things didn’t really fall into place until October, but when they did, we got a snapshot of what his horse could do, starting with a win in the GIII Bold Ruler H. at Aqueduct.
“When he ran in the Bold Ruler, I really wasn’t expecting that kind of race. I was a little taken aback,” Servis told the Thoroughbred News Service. “I think even as good as he is, the light came on with me that day where I was like, ‘Man, he went seven-eighths in [1:20] and change. I wasn’t all that thrilled with him [going in]. He was in the one hole, the worst post, and he was still just like ‘See you later, boys.’
“I was like, ‘Daggone.’ I got a little emotional after that and I think that’s what did it. I got a lot of satisfaction at the end of the year with everything we had been through.”
An even more significant win followed when Maximum Security dominated older horses in the GI Cigar Mile H. That was his most important victory on the year as it decided the 3-year-old championship.
It was a good way to finish off his year, but, for him, 2019 was still a year of ‘what ifs.’ Just how good is this horse? We never found out in 2019. Barring any more bouts with bad luck, this is the year we should.
“He’s gotten a little tougher looking,” Servis said. “I think anyone who saw him in Kentucky would see a difference in him now. He’s gotten older and more seasoned, and I think a trained eye would see that.”
He may need to be tougher Saturday. The Saudi Cup field will be the best Maximum Security has faced. Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute) is arguably the best older filly or mare in training. Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man), the winner of the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational, appears poised to have a huge year. McKinzie (Street Sense) may not win all the time, but he has been right there throughout his career while facing the best around. Tacitus (Tapit) looks ready to live up to his potential.
“They’re telling me he’s going to be one of the favorites, but I’m not going over there feeling like I’m the horse to beat or anything,” Servis said. “There are some good horses in there, some damn good trainers and it’s a lot of money. That’s what the owners want to do. But I’m not going over there feeling like I’m the horse to beat. I’m doing my thing and we’ll see how it goes.”
The field is so deep that Maximum Security will have to come with his very best, and, who knows, even that may not be good enough. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that not only will he win the Saudi Cup, but that it will be the first of many important, rich victories in 2020 for a horse that never quite got untracked in 2019. The possibilities could not be more exciting.
Irad Ortiz Jr. Has No Equal
Irad Ortiz Jr. is doing what isn’t supposed to be done.
The “Championship Meet” at Gulfstream brings together the best group of riders anywhere in racing. The colony is so strong that no one should be able to dominate, but that’s precisely what Ortiz has done. He had five wins on Friday’s card and, through Saturday, led the runner-up in the standings, Luis Saez, by a 99-79 margin. He has the uncanny ability to get the best out of virtually every horse he’s on and the bettors are pounding everything he rides.
Keep in mind, Ortiz is only 27 and didn’t start riding until 2011, when he won just 70 races and won aboard just 11% of his mounts.
“Irad continues to improve in all areas of his riding and preparation, which is no surprise to me,” said trainer Chad Brown. “It’s in his makeup to always strive to be the best.”
Any jockey can go cold at any time and the risk of injuries is always a factor. As top jockeys get older, they also tend to become less hungry, preferring to focus primarily on stakes horses.
But, so far, none of these factors have come into play with Ortiz, whose five winners Friday all came aboard claimers. He’s also starting to make inroads into the Todd Pletcher barn. Ortiz was aboard the well-regarded Pletcher first-time starter Liam’s Point (Liam’s Map), the winner of Saturday’s third race at Gulftstream.
It looks like he’s on his way to becoming a younger version of Jerry Bailey or even better. Bailey won seven Eclipse Awards between 1995 and 2003, an eight-year run when he had no equal among the sport’s leading riders.
A Crowded Winner’s Circle for Charlatan
It’s too early to tell how good Charlatan (Speightstown), the much-hyped maiden winner unveiled by Bob Baffert last week, will be. But he may have already set a record for most owners of a single horse. His listed owners are SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Stonestreet Stables LLC, Fred Hertrich, John Fielding and Golconda Stables. And the Starlight partnership no doubt includes numerous individuals.
This group has been heard from before. Minus Stonestreet, the same bunch is the owner of Eight Rings (Empire Maker)
Welcome to the new normal in racing.
A Serious Derby Candidate From Japan?
The foreign routes to the Kentucky Derby haven’t produced much of anything to get excited about over the years, but that may change this year as Café Pharoah (American Pharoah) could not have been more impressive when winning Japan’s Hyacinth S. Sunday in Tokyo.
A $475,000 purchase at the OBS March 2-Year-Olds In Training Sale , Café Pharoah won his debut by 10 lengths before appearing in Sunday’s race, which was the third of four races that make up the Japanese route to the Derby. He couldn’t have been more impressive in his stakes debut, overcoming a terrible trip. He hesitated at the start and found himself about 20 lengths behind the leader before he began to hit his stride under jockey Mirco Demuro. Demuro was forced to circle horses on the turn in the 1,600-meter race, which meant a six-wide trip. Once clear, he shot past the leaders and was much the best. With 30 points, he leads all Japanese contenders for the Derby. The Japanese Road concludes with the March 28 Fukuryu S., where the winner can earn 40 points.
With many of the horses that have found success from American Pharoah’s first crop being better suited for the grass, Cafe Pharoah could give his Triple Crown-winning sire his best shot at producing a Kentucky Derby winner.