By Chris McGrath
It's not his fault. But the fact is that Maximum Security (New Year's Day) has become one of the most chronicled, most contentious Thoroughbreds of recent times. From a lawsuit over his disqualification at Churchill, to the scandal engulfing his former trainer, to his frozen Arabian treasures, to the merit (or otherwise) of his debut for a new barn, one way or another, this extraordinary creature cannot keep out of the headlines.
If feeling mischievous, indeed, one might almost say that he will not be the only polarizing incumbent facing a critical test in the first week of November. True, Maximum Security can't strictly be described as incumbent, at least not in terms of the GI Longines Breeders' Cup Classic. He sat out the race last year, and was duly confined to a divisional championship. Nonetheless he unmistakably returned from the desert in February as the horse setting standards for the next generation.
Since then, of course, he has contributed a chaos all of his own to the wider upheavals of 2020. Who would have thought not only that Maximum Security could generate still more splenetic debate than he did in the Derby, but also that a new name is yet to be engraved on the trophy, nearly 16 months after his own was effaced by that of Country House (Lookin At Lucky)?
Even the horses he runs against seem to become mere silhouettes against glare of his extrovert talent and career. Very few people, for instance, stopped to ask whether the main reason Maximum Security was pushed so hard in the GII San Diego H. might simply be that Midcourt (Midnight Lute) has now matured into an extremely potent racehorse. Instead they treated him as measuring either an incipient decline in Maximum Security, or merely the various mitigations that were certainly available to him (long layoff, tactics used by his substitute jockey, etc). Never mind that Midcourt's brilliant performance, to some of us, was something that has been brewing for a good while and never mind the fascinating questions it raised about his own future.
At least their rematch in the GI TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar Saturday will permit Midcourt a second hearing. Poor old Country House, in contrast, sidled back onto the news agenda this week almost with an air of apology.
Yet while his advent at Darby Dan for 2021 received approximately one zillionth of the column inches meanwhile claimed by the horse he supplanted in the Derby, the beauty of this game is that Country House could yet have the last laugh.
Which would be no less than his connections deserve. They would hardly have chosen the uncomfortable manner in which they requited the Derby craving that unites every American horseman. Very soon afterwards, moreover, they had to relinquish any hope that Country House could restore due attention to his own merits, out on the track, instead compressing all ambition into the single, desperate prayer that he might recover from laminitis.
How gratifying, then, that he has safely secured a sequel to what was treated by many, at 65-to-1, as a pretty irritating supporting role in the Maximum Security drama. Certainly he will benefit from the best of stewardship, at his historic new home, and he has been priced as a virtual bet-to-nothing. His fee is just $7,500, and you can even get a lifetime breeding right in exchange for two foalings at a bare $5,000.
Country House is by one of the most underrated sires of his time, out of a mare whose two winners from just three other foals of racing age include one at graded stakes level. But the golden hinge of his pedigree is the Sam-Son matriarch No Class, who famously belied her name as the dam of four champions. Her celebrated daughter Classy 'n Smart (also dam of Dance Smartly) produced Lookin At Lucky's sire Smart Strike and her son Sky Classic is the sire of Country House's Grade I-placed granddam.
Quite clearly, the expertise of Bill Mott had long warranted the formal gilding of a Derby success. In the event, however, he must almost feel as though the Churchill slop had smeared the protagonists with some indelible curse; Country House, never to race again and Maximum Security, as it turns out, seldom to break free of controversy.
Someday, perhaps, the Country House team will be granted a chance to purge all bitterness from this bittersweet saga. Who knows? Someday Mott could train a son of Country House to win the race–and, this time, on a straight knockout.
Even the bare form of County House's final rehearsal, closing from off the pace for third in the GI Arkansas Derby, has acquired a persuasive luster through the subsequent endeavors of Omaha Beach (War Front) and Improbable (City Zip). That day Country House simply got the points he needed for a Derby gate. Three weeks later, he got the cavalry stampede he needed to draw out all his toughness and stamina.
Whatever the merits of the case weighed by the Churchill stewards, and by various lawyers since, Country House finished the Derby like a colt that would take a world of beating in the GI Belmont S. And who knows where his ongoing maturity–his third birthday fell four days after the Derby–might yet have taken him, in those other races by which we judge a Classic racehorse?
Taken alone, away from the feuding and the furore, his Derby performance was a coming-of-age. It was achieved by Mott sending him out there to learn on the job, with a race every month since December, taking in five different states. Country House appeared to be motoring on Nodouble gas, piped from the sire of No Class, one of the toughest and most indefatigable campaigners of the postwar era. What a cruel irony, then, that he should then have been unravelled by a luckless physical malady.
Country House will carry one of two consecutive asterisks in the Derby annals–neither, of course, suggesting the slightest deficiency or culpability. But perhaps the capricious fortunes of the Turf may yet offer both these crops some equalizing, symmetrical final drama, bringing all the opprobrium and discord to a clean, coherent finale.
An authoritative success for Maximum Security at Del Mar would set up a redemptive showdown at Keeneland with whichever sophomore finally engraves his name below that of Country House on the Classic roll of honor. Because the September Derby, as things stand, certainly has an auspiciously poised, triangular aspect: an East Coast monster at the apex, with a baseline challenge persisting from both the Midwest, through Art Collector (Bernardini), and the West, through Midcourt's buddy Honor A.P. (Honor Code).
In view of his trainer's genius, and that leisurely explosion in his workout last week, I certainly haven't given up on Honor A.P. despite his recent reverse. These animals are always a work in progress. It may ultimately prove, for instance, that Midcourt will reserve his very best for a mile, but he could hardly pass up a storied Grade I in his backyard with just a handful of runners. Either way, the continued fulfilment of his potential would never have got even this far in less patient and sensitive hands.
As it happens, between Mott and the vets, much the same could be said of Country House. And if we'll never know quite how far he might have progressed, on the track, at least his salvaged stud career might let him give us a hint.