Max Player Wins Jockey Club Gold Cup, War Like Goddess Takes Flower Bowl

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Max Player drew off to victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Trainer Steve Asmussen calls it a "dream meet."

And there's still two days-and a couple of grade 1 opportunities-to go.

During the first 38 of 40 days of racing at Saratoga Race Course, Asmussen has been in the middle of some of the most memorable moments of all.

He stood in the winner's circle there at the historic shrine of racing in upstate New York Aug. 7 when a victory by Stellar Tap in the fifth race crowned him as North America's all-time leader in wins.

He could be found with wide smile in the same place after Jackie's Warrior captured the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes and Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes and Yaupon survived being savaged by Firenze Fire in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

There was also a victory in the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes by Wicked Halo and a very game second by Midnight Bourbon in the biggest race of the meet, the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes.

The cherry on the top—for now anyway—came Sept. 4 when Asmussen added a third grade 1 win at the meet by sending out George Hall and SportBLX Thoroughbreds' Max Player to capture the 103rd renewal of the $955,000 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup which was also the first edition at the Spa.

"To set the record here at Saratoga, with the fans coming back, and win a third grade 1 at the meet, it's a dream meet," Asmussen said. "It's beautiful to reflect on, but we have two grade 1s left."

Looking ahead, Echo Zulu in the Sept. 5 Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes and Gunite in the closing day Sept. 6 Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes will be hard-pressed to match Max Player's performance in the 1 1/4-mile JCGC in which his decisive four-length victory over 2020 JCGC winner Happy Saver stamped him as a horse to beat in the Nov. 6 Grade 1 Longines Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar.

Max Player after his Jockey Club Gold Cup win. (Susie Raisher/NYRA Photo)

"That was the best to date and hopefully he'll go better," Asmussen said. "He physically looks great. He's matured wonderfully and he's made a beautiful older horse. He's getting strong and running his best races at the right time."

While the connections pocketed $535,000 for the victory, they also saved the Breeders' Cup some cash. Though the JCGC is part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge, Max Player had already secured a free "Win and You're In" spot by virtue of winning the July 3 Grade 2 Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park, also at the same 10-furlong distance as the JCGC.

Though the Suburban came on a sloppy track at 11-1 odds, Saturday's victory in 2:02.49 showed how that last effort has become the rule rather than the exception.

After a 3-year-old campaign in which he was third in the Runhappy Travers Stakes and Grade 1 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and he was unplaced in four starts before the Suburban, the 4-year-old son of Honor Code has suddenly emerged as a Horse of the Year contender.

"I think he has a lot more in the tank if he needs it and he's going to need it in the Breeders' Cup," Hall said. "We're really excited about the Breeders' Cup. We just want to rest him up, train him out there in California and put everything we've got into the Breeders' Cup. What an honor to win two 'Win and You're In' races. What a horse!"

Hall was hardly alone in his celebration as he's the founder and president of SportBLX Thoroughbreds, which has sold microshares of Max Player to roughly 600 people for as little as $100. About 30 of those owners were on hand at the Spa and reveled in the victory.

"Racing has been a wonderful experience for me and we wanted to share that experience with people by bringing the cost down and, frankly, it doesn't matter if you own the whole horse or a share. It's still exciting. Overall this is great for racing," Hall said. "The people we brought today, we brought them into the champagne room after the race and they had the time of their lives."

So did Max Player.

Bred in Kentucky by K & G Stables, the son of the Not For Love mare Fools in Love was razor sharp despite a two-month layoff. When 6-5 favorite Forza Di Oro shot out for the lead from the rail, Max Player and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. went right after him and they were a half-length behind after a half-mile in :48.70.

Both Asmussen and Hall said bringing out the early speed in Max Player has played a key role in his turnaround from a closer who collected minor shares of the purse.

"They realized they have to stay close to the pace with him, they can't make up that much ground," Hall said. "Ricardo knew he had to get him out of the gate and he rode a perfect race. He kept him in striking position the whole time."

Don Alberto Stable's Forza Di Oro was racing beyond 1 1/8 miles for the first time and the difference in seasoning showed turning for home as the more experienced Max Player forged to the front leaving the quarter pole and the son of Speightstown began to lose ground.

By the eighth pole, the 7-2 third choice ($9.60) was ahead by a length and drawing away as Wertheimer and Frere's Happy Saver, the 2-1 second choice who was fourth after six furlongs in 1:13.14, moved into second in the final yards.

"For him to do this on a fast track in the Jockey Club Gold Cup here at Saratoga, it is very satisfying," Asmussen said. "This is who he is, and I thought this was a dominating win."

The victory was the fourth in 11 starts for Max Player, who is a half brother to grade 2 winner Seahenge and grade 3 placed Urban Bourbon. He went unsold for $150,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and is the fifth foal to race and fifth winner from Fools in Love, who also has a 2-year-old colt named Homeric, a yearling filly by Frankel, and a weanling Ulysses colt.

Happy Saver, a son of Super Saver trained by Todd Pletcher, was second in the field of six by a half-length over Forza Di Oro.

"I thought he ran very well," Pletcher said. "We got bottled up in behind horses with a pace-less race. He ran on well, but we'd benefit from a more truly run race. I'm proud of his race."

Trainer Bill Mott offered no excuses for Forza Di Oro's effort.

"I'm disappointed that he didn't get the 10 furlongs," Mott said. -Bob Ehalt

War Like Goddess Rolls to Flower Bowl Victory

George Krikorian's War Like Goddess has continued to make the step up with aplomb. The 4-year-old English Channel filly did not debut until late September 2020, but less than a year later she is a winner in six of seven starts.

On Sept. 4 the Bill Mott trainee rolled to her fourth consecutive graded stakes victory when she unleashed a furious turn of foot in the $600,000 Grade 1 Flower Bowl Stakes at Saratoga. The 1 3/8-mile inner turf test for fillies and mares was her first try at the top level, and with the victory in the Breeders' Cup Challenge race, she picked up a fees-paid berth in the Nov. 6 Grade 1 Maker's Mark Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar.

"She's a classy filly. You can do whatever you want and she'll still give you that punch in the end," said jockey Julien Leparoux after guiding War Like Goddess to a 2 1/4-length win. "It's nice. It's a sign of the good ones, for sure."

War Like Goddess won the Flower Bowl impressively. (Janet Garaguso/NYRA Photo)

Leparoux settled War Like Goddess along the inside about five to six lengths off the pace early in the Flower Bowl. They tracked fractions set by La Signare, who opened up with splits of :24.71, :48.83, 1:13.66, and 1:37.40 on the firm course. Great Island followed in second.

War Like Goddess was switched to the outside by Leparoux in the upper final stretch. She then burst past the rivals in front of her and drew clear to complete the distance in 2:13.07. She paid $2.80 to win as the favorite.

"When they were coming out of the turn, I was watching the race and the pillar from the grandstand was in the way, so I didn't know if she was still on the inside or the outside," Mott said. "Then by the time she came, I could see that she made her way to the outside and was clear.

"She was tucked in most of the way. (Leparoux) tipped her out and got running room. She's won on the inside before. If you can get a clear run, that's all you need."

Great Island held on for second by a nose over My Sister Nat, who rallied from last in the field of six. Both are trained by Chad Brown, the latter a half-sister to the 2019 Flower Bowl winner and 2018 champion turf female Sistercharlie.

Lovely Lucky, American Bridge, and La Signare completed the order of finish. Coastana was scratched. -Christine Oser

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