HALLANDALE BEACH–It was five minutes before horses for the Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes were to enter the Gulfstream Park walking ring. Charles McCarthy of Bloodhorse and I experienced something unique.
It’s been well over a decade since the new Gulfstream was erected and never before had I ever heard what seemed like the entire ground level bellow rooting for a horse in a race being run somewhere in Simuland.
There must be close to a dozen TV monitors in the area adjacent to the paddock, each focused on a different venue but as we got closer the crowd seemed to be cheering one horse home.
We walked quickly over to the outside fence lining the paddock and as the monitor came into view, I saw the familiar colors of Gary and Mary West bounding away from the only horse close enough to catch the horse in front.
With every late stride, Maximum Security was bringing closure to 2019’s chaotic season and for the first time brought clarity to the tumultuous three-year-old division. Racing’s fans now have a definitive Eclipse titlist.
The Jewel horses left the saddling area and entered the ring. MaCarthy and I returned to the safety of the paddock fountain, inside the plant stanchions that line the ring, separating humans from equines for the safety of both.
And there he was, Teitone, the prohibitive Jewel favorite trained by the same man who tightened the girth on the Grade 1 Cigar Mile winner and protem three-year-old champion, whatever happens in Santa Anita’s Malibu on December 26.
Teitone, like Maximum Security, and like Shekky Shebaz had earlier in the Claiming Crown Canterbury earlier this day, won a third stakes race for super-trainer Jason Servis. Whatever the game, the rich will get richer.
At the beginning of the day I wondered whether Maximum Security would be capable of earning the three-year-old championship title. Instead, after he won so impressively, I walked away asking a different question:
Is Maximum Security the Horse of the Year, 2019?
I totally acknowledge that Bricks and Mortar had an undefeated season at the highest level of his specialty, turf racing, and that his unlikely Breeders’ Cup Turf victory, given race dynamics, was one of the most remarkable performances I have seen on any surface. But…
Maximum Security now has finished first in four Grade 1 races including the Kentucky Derby, the legendary mile-and-a-quarter-without-any-water, and at virtually all trips leading up to “America’s classic distance.”
Yes, Maximum Security lacks a turf run, just as Bricks And Mortar lacks a dirt race. But isn’t dirt racing, for better or worse, still considered America’s game? So now what?
Kentucky Derby demotion notwithstanding, he finished behind one horse in seven 2019 starts–his return in Monmouth Park’s ungraded Pegasus Stakes, a universally acknowledged prep for the G1 Haskell Invitational.
Maximum Security came out of that physically and environmentally challenging effort with colic. Long term plans for the Breeders’ Cup Classic had to be scuttled. And so the connections charted another course that would send him off to the breeding shed with a remarkable resume:
A run against older sprinters in the G3 Bold Ruler in which he would spot his elders actual weight, take pace pressure throughout after breaking from the dreaded pole slip at 7 furlongs, and draw away from in deep stretch.
He did the exact same thing in Saturday’s Cigar Mile, drilling the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner in the process, again giving away real weight to older, taking pace pressure throughout, drawing off late, actually gearing down strides from the wire.
With full hindsight I’m looking back on two campaigns conducted at the sport’s highest levels, asking myself which horse owns the most impressive resume this year.
At this posting I’m unsure but have another three weeks to decide before casting a ballot. And I’ll say only this: With racing fans screaming at TVs suspended above the Breezeway Bar and lining the paddock, a Horse of the Year foregone conclusion had suddenly become a match race.
And one more consideration for me: A decade or two after I’m dead, and if Thoroughbred racing still is being conducted in America, what name will today’s younger fans of all sports have heard of and remember?
Indeed, Horse of the Year should not be a popularity contest; that’s what the Secretariat Awards are for. However, in American culture, and in sports tradition, trivia matters.