There are days and moments at the racetrack that defy belief.
The July 20 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes day card at Monmouth Park was surely one of them.
What started amidst a pool of sweat with the card being stopped after two races due to temperatures in the upper 90s, turned bizarre when six non-stakes were canceled and, after a delay of about 4:45 between races, the six stakes were contested beginning at 6 p.m. with slightly cooler conditions.
All went well with the stakes and the $990,000, Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes turned out to be a tremendous race with Gary and Mary West’s favored Maximum Security, who was disqualified from first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, turning back a stretch bid from Mucho Gusto to register a 1 ¼-length victory under jockey Luis Saez.
And then it happened — again.
A few minutes after the horses crossed the finish line, the mood among a crowd announced as 25,173 at the Jersey Shore track turned surreal when it was announced that there was a steward’s inquiry on Maximum Security.
“My heart skipped a beat the first time I saw [the inquiry],” Gary West said.
Only this time, it took the stewards only a couple of minutes to decide there was no reason for a disqualification and Maximum Security was declared the victor.
“After I saw a replay, I knew they would not take him down,” West said. “The other horse was going backwards. That sort of thing happens in 25% of the races and they don’t take 25% of the horses down. If they took him down today, I would know for sure that the racing gods had something against me.”
What happened was that on the final turn, Red Oak Stable’s King for a Day, who defeated Maximum Security last month in the TVG.com Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, was on the rail with Maximum Security and Mucho Gusto outside of him. As King for a Day appeared to be tiring, Maximum Security seemed to move in a bit and King for a Day dropped back and eventually wound up fifth.
Unlike the Kentucky Derby, this time there was no harm, no foul and Maximum Security vaulted to the top of the 3-year-old class with his second Grade 1 win of the year — not to mention a rather famous third one in which he crossed the finish line first by 1 ¾ lengths.
“I don’t know how he cannot be at the top of his class for the moment,” West said about Maximum Security.
The Haskell, as a “Win and You’re In” Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race, assured Maximum Security of a free spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but on a steamy Saturday it was another 1 ¼-mile, Grade 1 test that was the main topic of conversation for the homebred son of New Year’s Day’s connections.
Trainer Jason Servis said Maximum Security will be shipped to Saratoga Race Course in a few days to begin preparations for the Aug. 24 Runhappy Travers Stakes, provided the 1:47.56 he needed to cover the 1 1/8 miles and the energy spent in fending off Michael Lund Petersen’s Mucho Gusto did not take too much out of the 3-year-old.
For West, the Travers could be doubly pleasurable as his other top 3-year-old, Game Winner, is being pointed to the “Mid-Summer Derby” by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert after an easy win the Los Alamitos Derby July 13.
“I believe Maximum Security is better at 1 ¼ miles than 1 1/8 miles,” West said.
When the speedy Joevia was scratched earlier in the day, it left a field of six and Maximum Security, the pacesetter in all but one of his races, figured to be the one to catch.
As it turned out, 42-1 shot Bethlehem Road grabbed a narrow early lead with King for a Day inside of him through quarter-mile fractions of :22.92 and :46.17 with Maximum Security about a length behind him.
After a half-mile, Bethlehem Road faded, leaving it to King for a Day, Maximum Security, and California shipper Mucho Gusto, the 3.10-1 second choice, to battle it out.
Once King for a Day (2.90-1) dropped back, it became a two-horse stretch duel between Maximum Security and Mucho Gusto, who was bidding to give Baffert an unparalleled ninth Haskell victory.
At the eighth pole, Maximum Security led by a head, and Mucho Gusto seemed poised to edge past him, but the horse who was disqualified in the Kentucky Derby dug down and pulled away from his challenger in the final sixteenth for a victory that no one could take away from him.
“He’s tough little horse. This means a lot,” said Servis, who is stabled at Monmouth and has worked at the track for about 40 years.
The victory was the fifth for Maximum Security, a 4-5 favorite ($3.60), in seven career starts and upped his earnings to $1,279,400. Not bad at all for a horse who started his career in a $16,000 maiden claimer.
The delay in post time even provided him with a bonus prior to the race.
“He got two lunches today,” Servis said about his multiple Grade 1 winner.
Mucho Gusto was a clear second, eight lengths ahead of Robert P. Donaldson’s Spun to Run.