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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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.

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14 Responses

  1. MAX just wins. Gary West may sue if Eclipse Award not given (kidding). He is a lead pipe cinch for 3-year-old but not sure, like you, of HOY. Bricks and Mortar is an amazing horse who probably will win the prize. Watch the Arlington Million replay. Sure, 3-5 but just so cool how he mows them all down late. You’re right, that in itself at BC Championships was an outlier. Hard to vote against.

  2. Don’t get me wrong Mal but the victory, the manner of it, and the body of work, has given me pause to consider. At the posting, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

    (If only the American electorate took the same amount of time and care to consider facts before casting their ballot… but I digress).

    One thing is for certain, this is the kind of “controversy” that, for a change, is good for the game.

  3. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. I had the same HoY thoughts Saturday afternoon.

    But after a night’s sleep, there is no way to minimize Bricks and Mortar’s season. Those weren’t the Podunk Turf Classics he was winning. It was the Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf, among others.

    I’ve been in the Maximum Security camp since the spring, when others weren’t. But other than the Derby, which was stolen from him, there really aren’t many signature wins. That wasn’t the Haskell of Haskells nor the Cigar of all Cigars.

    I’d like to see Maximum Security win the title to shove it up the down staircase of the Churchill Downs stewards, who still refuse to answer questions about their decision and why it took 23 minutes, but unless we want to say turf racing is second class racing, the title rightly belongs to Bricks and Mortar.

  4. TJ, I wrote the piece Sunday am, so I did sleep on it. While the races you mentioned weren’t the strongest ever, the Million and Turf Classic fields, with the exception of some Euros–not their best–weren’t classic either, American turf horses taking turns beating each other; more G2 than G1 types IMO.

    So, in that regard I see it as a push–everybody wants to win a G1, and as the late, great Frenchy Schwartz always said: “the game ain’t hard and nobody’s barred.” That goes for horsemen, too.

    I thought of you when I was writing b/c you were an early Max bandwagon-er.

    But you can’t let the Derby go, can you? It was the proper call! But the stewards should not hide from the decision and are wrong to do so.

    This game couldn’t spell transparency if you spotted them the t r a n s p a r e n c-and-y

  5. Mr. Jicha is right on in criticizing Twin Spires stewards. 23 mins for “the greatest two minutes in sports.” While watching this debacle unfold I realized that Mr. Mott was right, go for it. BTW, what ever happened to Country House? Talk about a Trivial Pursuit question. Big lumbering horse who won it all on a “call.”

  6. C,

    Country House will race at 4, not sure of his current schedule. If I see Mr. Mott Saturday, I’ll tell him you were asking…

  7. D,

    Think that critique’s a little strong. But, having said that, I too prefer dirt racing, but good fields with respect to either quality or size, preferably both. You know, a perfect world, right?

  8. Remember the great ones that went “turf to dirt” or “dirt to turf.” Not sure if Cigar is one of these that started on “the grass.” Samyn “on the green.” The Julie Girl (Krone) was great on the grass. Give it to Bricks.

  9. Yes, Cigar was turf to dirt and let’s not forget the dirt claimer, John Henry!…

    Not only was Jean-Luc patient enough to win as many grass races as he did, he is, as they say, a better person….

    Julie was absolutely a top class rider. At her Hall of Fame induction she said she wanted to earn the distinction, not “genderize” the honor. SHe earned it the hard way, between the fences. And man was she ever tough!

  10. Also liked Rosie Napravnik. Do you rank her and Julie as the two best women jockeys? Chantal Sutherland also good but maybe not that good. Karen Rogers? Robin Smith? Pricci top ten, please. I know I left out some obvious choices. May have chosen Chantal on looks, ha, ha.

  11. I’m driving a lot of buses, C, and prioritizing. IMO, Julie and Rosie stand out, the “equal” of top riders on the same plateau. It’s all very subjective, but these two have skills!

  12. Interesting that both did a lot at Monmouth and some at Meadowlands. Should “Jersey Joe” Bravo be in HOF? The guy has won everywhere. I say yes but I have no vote. Please vote him in, JP. Maybe I am influenced by BC win but for the longest time he has been winning races. Want to watch a good Twilight Zone episode? Mickey Rooney as a jockey who has been suspended and, fearing that his riding days are over wants to be tall. Then he gets his wish and the suspension is lifted. Guess what, Mick? You’re now too tall to ride, ha, ha. Rod Serling was great. Episode title, “The Last Night of a Jockey.” Also loved Jack Klugman who was a horseplayer in NY before acting career took off.

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