by J. Keeler Johnson
The minutes following the running of the $1 million Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) on Saturday at Monmouth Park were eerily similar to the agonizing minutes that followed the 2019 Kentucky Derby (G1).
After being famously disqualified from victory in the Derby due to a traffic incident on the final turn, Maximum Security was again involved in trouble on the far turn of the Haskell, prompting a review by the Monmouth stewards. It was a “here we go again” moment for the colt’s connections, but this time around no change was made to the order of finish, allowing Maximum Security to officially claim a rich prize that will significantly bolster his championship credentials.
“My horse has always been in top form. Of them all, he’s now the only one to with two Grade 1 wins. He has to be at the top of the class,” said owner Gary West, who races Maximum Security with his wife, Mary. “Am I prejudiced? Of course I am.”
DQs and non-DQs are always debated by racing fans, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone denying Maximum Security’s abundant talent. Far from being burned out from his spring campaign, Maximum Security seemed as strong, or stronger, than ever in the Haskell Invitational.
When the starting gates opened, the typically front-running colt showed a new dimension, settling in third place while tracking the pacesetting duo of Bethlehem Road and King for a Day through fractions of :22.92 and :46.71. Spun to Run and Mucho Gusto were also right in the thick of things, with an eight-length gap back to the trailing Everfast.
The drama unfolded during the second half of the race, when Bethlehem Road faded and Maximum Security ranged up alongside King for a Day. The two colts had met in the June 16 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, in which King for a Day had emerged victorious by a length following a race-long duel. For a few moments, a similar battle to the finish line appeared to be in the offing.
But just as Maximum Security seemed to have the upper hand, the field disappeared from view behind a large tree in the infield, and when they returned to view, King for a Day – racing along the rail – was forced to take up sharply as Maximum Security and the rallying Mucho Gusto raced to the front. King for a Day lost several lengths of momentum, though he also appeared to be weakening before the incident occurred.
The thrills still weren’t over as Maximum Security and Mucho Gusto turned for home locked together with barely more than a neck separating them. Mucho Gusto, conditioned by eight-time Haskell-winning trainer Bob Baffert, was a menacing presence. But Maximum Security, under vigorous urging from jockey Luis Saez, tenaciously turned back his rival to pull clear and win by 1 1/4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite.
“When he was doing as well as he was coming up to the race I had every reason to be confident. My horse has a lot of heart. He does not mind going head-to-head with any horse,” winning trainer Jason Servis said.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of speed in the race,” Saez said. “I’m not going to go to the lead and let everybody press me, and I had the best post, I think. I just came out of the break from the gate and waited to see how fast they were going. When I saw that everybody wanted to take the lead I just stayed right there. And when he came to the half-mile he put me inside in a pretty nice spot, he was traveling good. When I saw Mucho Gusto he came outside me, he came close to me and tried to beat me. I just let my horse run and he kept battling with him.”
Maximum Security stopped the clock for 1 1/8 miles in a quick 1:47.56. Longshot Spun to Run finished eight lengths behind Mucho Gusto in third-place, while Everfast, King for a Day and Bethlehem Road trailed the field.
Considering that Everfast edged King for a Day by just a half-length for fourth-place, it can be argued that the incident on the far turn cost King for a Day a better placing, introducing some controversy to the “no change” ruling. But Maximum Security’s connections were confident their colt would be left on top.
“In my mind my horse did nothing wrong. I saw other horses going backwards at that time so I had no concerns whatsoever that he would be taken down,” Gary West said.
“I knew it was not going to happen,” Saez agreed.
The Haskell marked Maximum Security’s second Grade 1 win of the year, following a gate-to-wire triumph in the Florida Derby (G1). Although he’s not technically a classic winner, his unofficial Derby “victory” remains a feather in his cap due to the controversial nature of the disqualification. Many analysts believe Maximum Security was the best horse in the Derby, and winning the Haskell has reaffirmed his position as leader of the three-year-old division.
Down the road, stiffer challengers await, including a tilt against older rivals in the November 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita. The Haskell awarded Maximum Security a “Win & You’re In” berth to the Classic, but first, major division prizes like the Travers Stakes (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) loom on the horizon.
In the Travers, Maximum Security could face off with his stablemate Game Winner, the champion two-year-old male of 2018.
“Right now, the Travers is the plan for this horse and Game Winner. We’re going to take all the steps and see how it goes,” Gary West said. “But Jason is the boss and he’ll do whatever is right for the horse.”
And so far, it seems Servis is making all the right moves.