As horse racing’s second season begins to unfold, Gary West has more reasons to focus on the future than virtually anyone else involved in the sport.
A little more than two months ago, West was at the center of the sport’s most tumultuous controversy in decades when Maximum Security finished first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, but, in a first-of-its-kind action in the opening leg of the Triple Crown, his homebred 3-year-old was disqualified for interference and placed 17th.
In the days since the first Saturday in May, there has been countless hours of debate about the merits of the decision by the Churchill Downs stewards, a federal lawsuit initiated by West to reverse the decision, and the kind of emotional pain and turmoil for West that only time can heal.
“It’s a relief to be able to focus on racing,” West said. “The further you get away from an unpleasant experience, the better off you are. I have learned that time is the best healer.”
While West remains as convinced as ever that Maximum Security was unjustly disqualified, helping in the process of moving forward toward a bright and exciting future are the major Grade 1 stakes and showdowns awaiting his two 3-year-old stars with different trainers, Maximum Security and Game Winner, as a muddled division searches for a champion.
After a winter and spring filled with three different winners of the Triple Crown (or four if you include Maximum Security) races and much more controversy about a single race than clarity about the leader of the 3-year-old division, the outlook figures to change in the next five weeks, beginning July 20 with the $1 million TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park and continuing with the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes Aug. 24 at Saratoga Race Course.
West and his wife, Mary, will be well represented in both races with horses who went off at the minimum 1-20 odds in their last start. Maximum Security looms as the most likely favorite in the Haskell at his Monmouth summer training base and Game Winner — and possibly Maximum Security, based on what happens Saturday in the Haskell — is on course for the Travers.
“If they were issuing the Eclipse Awards today, I don’t know who they would vote for. That statement alone shows that the rest of the year will determine the 3-year-old championship. I think there are 10-15 people who think they have a chance for the award, and I think they are right to believe that,” West said. “The way I see it, I don’t think there is a two-turn 3-year-old colt who has won more than one Grade 1 stakes and it’s almost August.
On what is shaping up to be a steamy, 90-degree day at the Jersey Shore for the Haskell, Maximum Security will try to shake off the sting of the disqualification and a loss at 1-20 odds in his subsequent race to regain the form that carried him past the finish line first by 1 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Derby.
“He’s doing great in preparing for the Haskell and there will be no excuses Saturday,” West said.
Racing luck worked against Maximum Security in his first start after the fiasco in the Kentucky Derby. The June 16 TVG.com Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth was targeted as his prep for the Haskell, but during the week before the race, trainer Jason Servis arranged a blood test for the homebred son of New Year’s Day out of caution and did not enter him in the 1 1/16-mile stakes until the last minute.
“Jason was concerned because the horse was lethargic one day,” West explained. “The blood test came back fine and Jason would not have run him if he felt something was wrong. He is a conservative trainer by nature.”
Maximum Security, who was 4-for-4 with a decisive, 3 1/2-length win in the Xpressbet Florida Derby before the Kentucky Derby, was viewed as such a cinch that he was sent off as a 1-20 favorite, but the mood changed when the starting gates opened. He stumbled at the break and was pressed throughout by Red Oak Stable’s King for a Day, who edged past the Grade 1 winner in the final sixteenth to record a stunning, one-length upset.
“He stumbled badly in the Pegasus and he got beat a length,” West said. “That probably cost him the race, but that’s horse racing. Stuff happens. I understand that. He’s the only 3-year-old I know who has run four straight 100 Beyer Speed Figures or better. He ran a 100 even after he stumbled. He got beat by a nice, improving horse, and we look forward to a rematch in the Haskell.”
Hall of Famer and two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert, who trains Game Winner and Haskell entrant Mucho Gusto for owner Michael Lund Petersen, believes the $150,000 Pegasus was an ideal prep that will make Maximum Security highly formidable on Saturday.
“With a hard race in him, he’s really going to be ready. Sometimes a loss is good for everyone because the pressure with a horse like [Maximum Security] eases,” Baffert said shortly after the Pegasus. “Horses that stumble, it scares them a bit and gets them excited and they use themselves a little more. You could tell he was struggling and at the top of the stretch he was empty, but he still went on. The ones who could do that in a situation like that are the good ones. It was like American Pharaoh in the  Travers, he was completely empty and he still gutted it out [and finished second]. Only certain horses will do that. I still have a lot of respect for Maximum Security, I still think he’s the horse to beat among the 3-year-olds.”
Maximum Security tuned up for the Haskell July 15 with a strong workout at Monmouth Park.
“He did super. Really good,” Servis said. “He went a mile in 1:53 and change. He got the first half in a minute and came home in :53 and change. I’m feeling good about him.”
While Servis has voiced some concern over running Maximum Security three times in 69 days, West said if all goes well in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, Maximum Security will move on to the 150th edition of the Travers, which in the long run may wind up deciding the division champion.
“Right now, our plans are that if he runs well in the Haskell and comes out fine, we’ll run in the Travers. I don’t think he needs two months between races. There’s never enough time between races for Jason. It’s not a criticism. That’s just his mind set,” said the 73-year-old West, whose numerous philanthropic efforts include the Gary and Mary West Foundation to support lower health care costs, independence for senior citizens, career opportunities for disadvantaged youth, and service dogs for seniors and veterans. “He is certainly and directionally correct because when really good horses run a good race it takes them more time to recover. Horses become good horses because they lay it on the line every time. Jason worries about everything and I Iove him for it. We’ll play it by ear. Right now, I am planning on running him in the Travers.”
If Maximum Security, who humbly started his career in a $16,000 maiden-claiming race, makes it to Saratoga, he’ll very likely find Game Winner there. West’s 2-year-old champion returned to winning form July 13 with a five-length victory in the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby, recording his first win since a Nov. 2 triumph in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that closed out his undefeated 2-year-old campaign.
Game Winner, an earner of $2,027,500 who was bred by Summer Wind Equine and purchased for West by Ben Glass for $110,000 from the Lane’s End consignment at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, only beat three rivals in the 1 1/8-mile stakes at Los Alamitos, but it was the perfect tonic for a frustrating first half of 2019 that started with Game Winner finishing second in both the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes by a nose to Omaha Beach and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by a half-length to stablemate Roadster. He was moved up to fifth in the May 4 Kentucky Derby and exited the 1 1/4-mile classic with an achy back that sidelined him until the Los Al Derby.
“Both I and Bob Baffert were really happy with his race. We wanted him to have a good race without having to work overly hard for it. Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t. In this case, we got exactly what we wanted out of it,” West said. “He ran a good race and ran the last eighth of a mile in less than 12 seconds [11.85 seconds] and that’s pretty unusual for a 3-year-old going a mile and an eighth. I thought that was real encouraging and he was drawing off pretty rapidly at the end of the race. He finished real strong. He came back and wasn’t blowing, and I think that race will set him up real well for the Travers.”
Based on what they have seen lately, there’s strong optimism from the Game Winner camp that their son of Candy Ride is poised to be a major player in the late summer and fall classics.
“Bob is not one to exaggerate things. If anything, he downplays his horses. He said Game Winner is a better horse now than he was as a 2-year-old. He’s just had some bad luck this year. He had a 4 1/2-month layoff and got beat by an inch by supposedly the best 3-year-old in the country,” West said. “In the Kentucky Derby, he was almost knocked down and lost all chance at the start and got beat less than four lengths for all the money. He ran a deceptively good race. With a good start, I think he would have won the race, but that’s speculation on my part. But it did knock him out and tweak his back. He lost some weight but he’s gotten it back. The freshening was the best thing for him. Some people might have moved on with him in the other Triple Crown races but we’re pretty conservative people. If the horse isn’t doing right, we give them the time to get better.”
With Maximum Security and the other Haskell candidates, plus Game Winner, Preakness Stakes winner War of Will, Kentucky Derby runner-up Code of Honor, and Tacitus, who was second in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and third in the Kentucky Derby, among those pointing for the Travers, the “Mid-Summer Derby” at the Spa is taking shape as a blockbuster.
“If you are a racing fan and want to see a good horse race, the Travers is going to be a helluva horse race with a lot of horses with a legitimate chance to win the race,” West said.
As a subplot, the Travers could bring together Maximum Security and Gary Barber’s War of Will for the first time since the bumping between the two 3-year-olds led to Maximum Security’s disqualification in the Kentucky Derby. West has issued a challenge to the owners of War of Will, Country House, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress that will pay them $5 million if their horse finishes in front of Maximum Security the next time they meet this year, provided the other owner agrees to risk at least $1.86 million and as much as $5 million that will go to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund if their horse finishes behind Maximum Security.
Whether the connections of War of Will, in particular, will take him up on the offer remains to be seen.
“The offer is still available for War of Will and if they want to make a counteroffer, I’ll listen,” West said. “If they think they have the best horse, we can put up the money and see. I have not heard anything from anybody.”
In the meantime, as much as races like the Haskell and Travers will divert West’s attention away from the past, he remains as convinced as ever that Maximum Security should not have been taken down on Derby day.
“I don’t feel any differently about the outcome of the race. Anyone who is objective could clearly see that War of Will struck our horse four or five times. We got the blame for something another horse did. No owner on planet Earth would say that’s OK. It’s not OK. I don’t feel any better about that than I did two months ago,” West said. “Immediately after the race I thought if we did something wrong, we did something wrong. But after looking at it and analyzing it, I think the stewards looked at our horse veering out and became so focused on that they didn’t look at what caused the horse to suddenly veer out. And what caused him to veer out was that another horse repeatedly struck our horse in the hind-quarters, and I believe time will prove it. It will be a long, drawn-out process, but I’m going to take it to the point until my legal people tell me it will be silly to pursue it any longer.”
And while the legal battle continues, for Gary West there’s also the sunshine of a summer that should be filled with the essence of enjoyment in horse racing: great horses squaring off in signature races.
It’s a future that’s surely miles removed from the past.