When Maxfield crossed the finish line in the $150,000, Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, Churchill Downs track announcer Travis Stone punctuated the 3-year-old’s victorious effort by saying, “Maxfield is thinking Derby.”
If the undefeated Godolphin colt is indeed thinking about another race at Churchill Downs in the fall, he’s not saying.
As for trainer Brendan Walsh, who can indeed talk for the Grade 1-winning equine athlete, he’s at least thinking about the $1 million Belmont Stakes after the colt’s impressive one-length victory over Ny Traffic on May 23 after 7 1/2 months on the sidelines.
“Absolutely, [the Belmont] and everything else is in the picture,” Walsh said after the 1 1/16-mile stakes for 3-year-olds. “Every time he runs, it looks like the mile and a quarter, which will be the furthest [of the Triple Crown races], will not be a problem for him. The Belmont, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, they will all be in his wheelhouse.”
Walsh said he will monitor how the homebred son of Street Sense bounces back after his 3-year-old debut and huddle with Godolphin management before deciding whether Maxfield will head to New York for the June 20 Belmont Stakes.
“We’ll enjoy this and come up with a plan in a few days,” Walsh said.
If it’s thumbs-up, rest assured Maxfield will rate as one of the favorites in this year’s opening leg of the Triple Crown after Saturday’s performance, which provided an affirmative initial answer as to how the winner of all three career starts has bounced back from ankle surgery that brought his 2-year-old campaign to a premature end after a dazzling win Oct. 5 in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
“He’s an amazing horse. Ones like him don’t come around too often. He showed he’s as good or maybe even better than he was last year,” Walsh said. “It was the performance we wanted, and hopefully we can move forward from here and have a good year, which I am sure he will. He makes us look good.”
Off the lengthy layoff, Maxfield showed more speed from post-position eight Saturday than he did in his races at 2 as he was part of a line of five horses vying for the lead as the field of 10 headed toward the first turn. But then jockey Jose Ortiz wisely backed off, moving his mount inside to the three path and taking a hold of Maxfield as he raced behind horses while eighth after an opening quarter-mile in :23.98.
“He got a great education today,” Walsh said about the son of the Bernardini mare Velvety.
While Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Pneumatic and Ny Traffic vied with 168-1 longshot Celtic Striker for the lead, Ortiz patiently waited for the right moment to move with the 13-10 favorite ($4.60). That time came leaving the three-eighths pole when Ny Traffic and Pneumatic put away Celtic Striker after six furlongs in 1:12.44 and Ny Traffic emerged with a slight lead.
At that point, Ortiz moved his 3-year-old five paths wide into the clear and Maxfield did the rest.
Even as 7-2 third choice Ny Traffic drifted out a bit into Maxfield’s path in the final furlong, the Godolphin runner went right by him, covering the distance in 1:43.05.
Though the Belmont Stakes is the first Triple Crown race in this year’s disjointed rotation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve hovered in the background. As part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, Maxfield picked up 50 qualifying points. With a total of 60, he’s ninth in the standings and seems guaranteed of a starting spot in the middle jewel of the 2020 Triple Crown.
“We’re in a nice position now,” Walsh said.
Runner-up Ny Traffic picked up 20 points. Coming on the heels of a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby and a third in a division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, the son of Cross Traffic is now eighth in the scramble for the 20 berths with a total of 70 points.
“I’m super proud of him,” trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said. “An exceptional horse beat him. He’s learning how to sit behind horses and relax. Now we have to teach him how to finish the job a little more. This was crucial because I think we secured a Derby spot.”
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
Joseph still has to talk with the ownership group of John Fanelli, Cash is King, LC Racing, and Paul Braverman but said the Belmont Stakes was not on Ny Traffic’s agenda.
“The Belmont Stakes hasn’t been in our plans,” said Joseph, who listed the July 11 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland or the July 18 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park as better choices for Ny Traffic.
Pneumatic, the 5-2 second choice trained by Steve Asmussen, was three-quarters-of-a-length back in third in a strong effort for a colt making his third career start and first in a stakes.