By Gary West — It was the kind of performance that leaves a racing fan just standing there, slack-jawed, staring at the racetrack but actually into the future, and thinking, “Now, that’s a Derby horse.”
Last October, when Maxfield won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, he delivered not only one of the best juvenile performances of the year, but one of the most inspirational, for it inspired thoughts of roses and spires and, well, the first Saturday in May. Making his stakes debut after a show-stopping maiden victory at Churchill, he was last to leave the gate. He advanced as the field entered the second turn, swung outside, to the middle of the track, and then blew by his rivals as if he were the train they had just missed.
Maxfield ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.65 seconds, which is superlative for a 2-year-old, and drew clear to finish more than five lengths ahead of Gouverneur Morris. As if the moment weren’t already redolent of roses, Maxfield did his best running in the second turn, where the Derby is usually won.
And then an ankle injury sent him to the sidelines, smashing Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hopes and transforming those Derby thoughts into precarious hopes. But Churchill Downs announced this week that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 146th Derby will be run on the first Saturday in September, not May.
And with that, Maxfield’s Derby status advanced from outside possibility to possible favorite. Retrospect will eventually offer a more-informed look at the situation, of course, but from here, at this moment, Maxfield could be the horse that benefits most from the change and from the disrupted stakes schedule.
“This is all terribly unfortunate for everyone. I think Bob Baffert nailed it when he said, ‘This reminds us that there are more important things than racing,’” said Brendan Walsh, Maxfield’s trainer, about the pandemic. “A lot of people have done great work just keeping the sport going. As for Maxfield, this (moving the Derby) puts us in a better spot to prepare him properly.”
Preparing for his return, Maxfield has had five official workouts since early February at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida, including the two most recent moves at five-eighths of a mile. Last Saturday, he worked a bullet (fastest of 10 at the distance), 1:01.80.
“We’ve been very happy with him,” said Walsh, a native of County Cork, Ireland, who quickly has built a reputation as one of the sport’s best horsemen. “He’s been training and working well. He has done everything we’ve asked him to do.”Walsh said the plan was to “tighten the screws a little bit” over the next couple weeks “to have a shot” at one of the final major Derby preps in April, “if that’s where we decide to go.”
But the pandemic has changed that plan, just as it has changed nearly everything. Not only has the Derby been moved, but Keeneland has canceled its spring season, and Aqueduct has canceled racing, at least for the moment. And Friday, Oaklawn Park announced it would move its Arkansas Derby from April 11 to May 2.
“We have more time now,” Walsh said. “The situation is very different. The important thing, though, is that we all get through this.”
All the questions that await 3-year-olds at the start of the year still apply to Maxfield, of course. How much will he progress and how quickly? Will he step forward with additional distance? And, in his case, has he completely moved beyond the injury that compromised his juvenile campaign? Yes, all the questions remain, but suddenly he has more than five months to answer them.
Gary West, for Thoroughbred News Service, is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer and an HRI contributor