If you watched George Hall’s Max Player midway through his Nov. 12 debut in a two-turn, one-mile test at Parx Racing, any conjecture about his future would have been humble.
After looking like he was about to leave the racetrack on the first turn, he was racing wide on the backstretch, trailing in sixth, and had the look of a plodder who might be in a claimer by February.
Yet if you turned your eyes off him in the final four furlongs of that maiden race, you missed a rather amazing turnaround by a colt bound for graded stakes honors.
After closing impressively to overcome an 11-length gap and miss by a half-length in his debut, Max Player returned Dec. 17 at Parx and won by 4 1/4 lengths.
Start No. 3 was even more eye-opening.
Max Player’s strong closing kick carried him into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve picture as he rallied from sixth to take charge in the final furlong and prevail by 3 1/4 lengths in the $250,000, Grade 3 Withers Stakes for 3-year-olds Feb. 1 at Aqueduct.
“We’ve been on the Kentucky Derby trail,” said Hall, who won the 2011 Belmont Stakes with Ruler On Ice, “and it will be another dream come true to be back on it.”
For trainer Linda Rice, Max Player’s performance in the 1 1/8-mile race — the second of Aqueduct’s four Kentucky Derby preps — justified the faith she always had in the colt’s ability to shine at two turns.
“In early workouts, he didn’t show a lot, and I told George he has the right frame, pedigree, conformation, to be a two-turn horse,” Rice said. “That’s why we took him to Parx to start.”
Through his victory over Remsen Stakes winner Shotski in the Withers, Max Player picked up 10 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series. According to his trainer, Max Player will most likely try to add to that total in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes April 4 at Aqueduct, although there could be a start before that.
“The nice thing about him is that he’ll get the distance, and he got enough points to help us down that road,” Rice said.
Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable, Pantofel Stable, and Howling Pigeon Farms’ Shotski and jockey Luis Saez helped carve out the early pace, setting the tempo while under pressure from Prince of Pharoahs, Vanzzy, and New Commission through quarter-mile fractions of :23.96 and :49.16.
After putting them away leaving the quarter-pole, Shotski faced a challenge from Monday Morning Qb, who was last in the field of eight after an awkward start. Racing on the rail, the Blame colt repelled Monday Morning Qb, but rallying outside of them, jockey Dylan Davis kicked Max Player into top gear in the stretch and rocketed past him in the final sixteenth.
“He was fit and able to handle the mile and an eighth better than any other horse,” Davis said.
The final time was 1:53.87 on a fast track.
Max Player, who paid $12.80 to win, is the first black-type winner for his sire, Honor Code , who stands at Lane’s End. He is the fifth foal from the Not For Love mare Fools in Love and her fifth winner. He is also the mare’s second graded/group stakes winner, joining Group 2 winner Seahenge.
“I love it when the homebreds do well,” Hall said.
Shotski picked up four Kentucky Derby points and pushed his total to 14 while confirming the confidence Saez showed in him by giving up a Saturday card at Gulfstream Park to ride at Aqueduct.
“He was fighting hard. He’s very game,” Saez said. “He didn’t see the horse outside of him because he takes off when he sees another horse. I really love this horse.”