Maximum Security, the marvelously talented but seemingly star-crossed colt makes his return to the racing scene at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club as he heads a field of six older horses in the 79th running of the Grade II, $150,000 San Diego Handicap on Saturday, July 25.
||Drayden Van Dyke
Gary and Mary West's homebred 4-year-old by New Year's Day, whom they own in partnership with Magnier, Tabor and Smith, as well as the major Irish breeding entity Coolmore, will race in the Coolmore silks in the $150,000 San Diego, a key prep for the shore oval's signature race - the TVG Pacific Classic scheduled for Saturday, August 22.
Maximum Security became the only horse ever disqualified from victory in the Kentucky Derby in 2019, then lost his trainer in March to alleged drugging issues after a triumph in the $20-million Saudi Cup. Nonetheless, the bay looms a stout favorite Saturday despite a) making his first start in five months; b) working under a new trainer (Bob Baffert); c) getting a new rider (Abel Cedillo), and d) making his first appearance on the West Coast.
His impressive ledger currently reads 10 starts, eight wins and $11,801,900 in earnings. Not surprisingly, he'll pack top weight of 127 pounds in the mile and one-sixteenth San Diego, spotting his five rivals from five to nine pounds. He's been made the even-money favorite for the race, which goes as the 10th event on an 11-race card that also features the San Clement Stakes and the Smiling Tiger Stakes.
Here's the lineup for the San Diego from the rail out with riders, weights and morning line odds:
Hronis Racing's Higher Power (Flavien Prat, 122 pounds, 7/2); Patti and Hal Earnhardt's Ax Man (Mike Smith, 118, 8-1); Red Barons Barn and Rancho Temescal's Sharp Samurai (Jorge Velez, 119, 12-1); Hronis Racing's Combatant (Drayden Van Dyke, 121, 6-1); Maximum Security, and C R K Stable's Midcourt (Victor Espinoza, 122, 4-1).
While Maximum Security's credentials make him the horse to beat in the San Diego, it is noted that the flashy speedster did not draw a field of patty cakes for his comeback.
Two of his rivals - Higher Power and Combatant, both trained by John Sadler - are millionaires and Midcourt, who runs out of the John Shirreffs barn, is a multiple stakes winner with more than $400,000 in the bank.
Higher Power captured last year's renewal of the Pacific Classic and no doubt is on a course to try for a repeat. The 5-year-old bay horse by Medaglia d'Oro was last out in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on June 6 where he finished second to Improbable going nine furlongs. His bankroll reads $1,486,648.
Stablemate Combatant rang the bell in the Santa Anita Handicap in March for the biggest victory of his career. He's a 5-year-old ridgling by the late Scat Daddy who'll be making the 26th start of his career. He has earnings of $1,033,998.
Midcourt was eased after a rocky start in his latest effort, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, but has come back to work well since. The 5-year-old gelding by Midnight Lute has finished in the top three in eight of his 11 starts, including five wins.
First post Saturday - just as it is on all days at the summer meet - is 2 p.m.
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Maximum Security Debuts for Baffert
The Del Mar barber's knowledge of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, whose distinctive white locks he was trimming, apparently did not extend to the horses in Baffert's deeply talented stable.
So, asking about the best horses Baffert had on hand for the Del Mar summer meeting was a logical conversation starter or extender.
"Well, I've got this horse Maximum Security ..." Baffert said.
"Oh, I know THAT horse," the barber exclaimed.
Maximum Security, the horse that crossed under the wire the apparent winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby before an extensively-chronicled disqualification, the first in Derby history. The multi-million-dollar earner that, also in extensively-chronicled circumstances, was transferred in March to the care of Baffert.
Maximum Security, the 4-year-old son of New Year's Day who will make his first start for Baffert, and first in nearly five months, in Saturday's $150,000 San Diego Handicap.
"He's a very famous horse," Baffert said in a phone interview earlier this week. "I'm very excited and a little bit nervous for him to run. There's a lot of pressure when you're around really good horses and we always have that."
Any trainer looks forward to a new horse in the stable and there are physical checks to be made upon arrival, which Maximum Security passed routinely. There was, however, one obstacle to overcome in the transition according to Baffert.
"Every trainer feeds a little differently and at first he was kind of a finicky eater when we got him," Baffert said. "Which was strange, because he doesn't look like he ever missed a meal in his life. But once we got that worked out, he has been fine.
"He's very intelligent and around here he's been kind of quiet."
Maximum Security had two works at Del Mar, one more than was originally planned after the race was delayed a week by COVID-19 positives in the jockey colony.
He covered five furlongs in :59.60 on July 11, fourth-fastest of 88 at the distance that day, and came back a week later - the original date of the San Diego - to work a bullet six furlongs in 1:11.60.
"He's a big, strong horse and I can't be happier with the way he's training," Baffert said. "He trains like a really good horse."
Maximum Security will be ridden for the first time by Del Mar-based Abel Cedillo. Luis Saez, aboard for the last seven starts, tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago at Keeneland and is subject to travel restrictions.
"When I got the word on Saez, I asked around about who was open." Baffert related. "Some (jockey agents) said, `If it's Maximum Security, maybe I could get open.' But I really didn't want to take anyone's rider."
Trainer Mark Glatt had nominated the multiple-stakes winning 6-year-old gelding Sharp Samurai, a turf specialist, to both the San Diego on dirt and the Eddie Read Stakes the following day on grass. The obvious strategy: provide opportunity for Grade II honors on either surface and a way of avoiding Maximum Security.
"Bob thought that because Abel and Luis Saez have similar styles Abel would be a good fit and was his first choice," Cedillo's agent, Tom Knust, said. "I thought that was very complimentary of both Abel and Bob.
"We ride a lot for Mark Glatt and Sharp Samurai's owners (Red Baron Barn and Rancho Temescal). We told them we would hold the mount if they wanted to run in the San Diego. They were nice enough to say they didn't want Abel to miss having the opportunity to ride `Maximum'."
With Maximum Security committed to the San Diego, Cedillo - most recently aboard Sharp Samurai in a third-place effort in the American Stakes at Santa Anita on June 21 - was free to take the call from Baffert. Once, that is, Baffert got clearance from owner/breeders Gary and Mary West of Rancho Santa Fe and their partners.
"(Cedillo) is strong and aggressive," Baffert said. "He won on Fighting Mad for Gary and Mary West, he's won other races for me and he seems like he can handle the pressure. I'm happy to have him."
The victory by Cedillo for the West stable was in the Grade II $200,000 Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita on May 31.
Cedillo, a 31-year-old native of Guatemala, was a dominant presence in Northern California before making a successful transition to the Southern California circuit a year ago. He's been doing the due diligence for what could be career-boosting opportunity.
"I was very excited when (Knust) said I have a chance to ride this horse," Cedillo said. "Right now, I'm watching the replays of all his races. It looks to me like I'll have to kind of stay busy on him, but I'm going to try to talk to Luis Saez in the next few days and, of course, I'll talk to Mr. Baffert and see what they say."
Under normal circumstances, Cedillo's assignment would be a one-race replacement for the proven Saez. But these are not normal times, with COVID-19 protocols curtailing jockey travel. And, Baffert said, Maximum Security is staying put for the summer.
"It's a challenge. We've got this great horse and we've got this race as a prep for the (TVG) Pacific Classic," Baffert said. Del Mar's signature race, the Grade I, $500,000 mile and a quarter is scheduled for Saturday, August 22.
Back when Quarter Horse racing was the name of Baffert's game, he had a good one named Gold Coast Express transferred to his stable.
"The first time he ran for me, I was so excited when I gave (jockey) Danny Cardoza a leg up I almost threw him over the horse," Baffert said. Gold Coast Express won eight races in a row and was the 1986 World Champion.
Unlike most Del Mar stakes races, especially the ones for juveniles, the San Diego has not been good to Baffert. He's won it once (Fed Biz, 2014) and had a couple of seconds (Paynter, 2013, Dr. Dorr 2016). But there were a couple of nasty ones, too.
In 1998 he ran his Triple Crown star and champion Silver Charm in the San Diego at odds of 3-10. Alas, they had to send out the proverbial search party to find him at the end of that one. Then, even more uncomfortably, there was 2017.
Arrogate came into the San Diego as the No. 1 ranked Thoroughbred in world, having won the Breeders' Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup. Arrogate went off at odds of 1-20 but was never much of a factor and finished fourth, beaten 15 lengths, by the John Sadler-trained Accelerate.
"The track can be tricky. Some horses like it and some don't," Baffert said. "Arrogate didn't. But this horse has worked well on it and I think he likes this track.
"I have a really good feeling about this horse and I really want him to run well. What he's gone through in his career is not his fault."